Medical Studies

Corrupted Blood: A model for influenza pandemics

Can video games be used to learn how to best plan for infectious disease pandemics? Time reports on how a World of Warcraft pandemic can be used by epidemiologists:

[The] papers document the path of an unexpectedly virulent virtual disease called ‘Corrupted Blood,’ which swept through World of Warcraft’s online characters starting in September 2005. (The game’s administrators introduced the disease as a challenge for some high-level players; they didn’t expect it to break out of the caves and into the virtual world’s cities and towns.) The disease then ravaged the player population — despite administrators’ efforts to quarantine the infected — and gave World of Warcraft its first virtual-world pandemic.

In real life, epidemiologists have long used complex mathematical models to predict how an outbreak of, say, pandemic flu might spread around the world. The problem is that testing those models isn’t very easy, which makes it hard to judge whether the models are accurate. Scientists can’t just release pathogens into cities and see how many people die. So, instead, they base their models on past outbreaks, where information collection was imperfect, or on people’s stated (but hypothetical) beliefs about what they would do during a future outbreak. The resulting models can be remarkably sophisticated, but they “lack the variability and unexpected outcomes that arise … not by the nature of the disease, but by the nature of the hosts it infects,” according to Eric Lofgren and Nina Fefferman, authors of the Lancet Infectious Diseases paper. For example, they say, the failure of the World of Warcraft quarantine “could not have been accurately predicted by numerical methods alone, since it was driven by human decisions and behavioral choices.” In other words, no model will know whether or not people ignore infection-control rules in the real world.

Those interested in how diseases are spread may also find my 27 Jan 06 post interesting. It describes how flow of money may provide a good model of how diseases spread in modern society.

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