Modelling system forecasts spread of Ebola
5 December 2014
A forecasting model developed by the EU funded EPIWORK project
to model the spread of swine flu H1N1 has shown that Ebola would have infected between 14,000 and 22,000
people in West Africa by the end of November 2014.
The Global Epidemic and Mobility Model (GLEaM) produces realistic simulations of the global spread of
infectious diseases by combining real-world data on populations and
human mobility with elaborate stochastic models of disease
transmission. GLEaM draws on flows of data never before included in
health-related forecasting, such as daily airline passenger traffic,
censuses, hospital admissions and medical services, funeral
attendances, and even information submitted from mobile phones.
The use of GLEaM in EBOLA
Professor Vespignani, EPIWORK project leader at the time, is now
head of the Laboratory for the Modeling of Biological
Socio-Technical Systems (MOBS LAB) at Northeastern University in
Boston, US. "We began using the model for Ebola in July this year,"
he said, "when the disease started to show exponential growth in
West Africa. We are also looking at the possibility of Ebola
spreading worldwide. In the case of Ebola, so far the predictions of
reported cases have been accurate within the probability range the
The model was developed during the now-finished EPIWORK project, which
involved collecting epidemiological data during the 2009 outbreak of
H1N1 influenza, commonly known as ‘swine flu’, and making it
available to the research community across the EU.
Daniela Paolotti, an epidemiologist at Italy’s Institute for
Scientific Interchange (ISI) Foundation, the institution which
coordinated EPIWORK, added, "The focus for GLEaM in 2009 was the
H1N1 influenza pandemic, but it was always meant to be extended to
other infectious diseases. The idea was to build a framework that
could be used for new emerging diseases and as a result it has been
able to be adapted to Ebola, too.
The project also developed Influenzanet, a system to monitor the
activity of influenza-like-illness (ILI). This system has a ‘citizen
science’ focus, obtaining its data directly from the population
completing an online application form, which contains various
medical, geographic and behavioural questions.
Now Influenzanet has around 20,000 participating volunteers in
local communities across 10 EU countries. It provides additional
information for epidemiologists and public health scientists, who
beforehand could only rely on the traditional system of primary care
doctors forming sentinel networks to report the presence of disease.
This creates a supplementary fast and flexible monitoring system,
which does not replace the doctors’ sentinel network, but allows for
direct comparison of Influenza-Like Illness (ILI) between countries.
In many countries involved in Influenzanet, the web data is
published weekly on government surveillance websites as an annex to
the official data. During the project, the EPIWORK partners
developed close contact with national health institutes which they
can alert if the data being gathered through Influenzanet warrants
Influenzanet has also produced a reporting app for mobile
devices, available through some of the national partners (eg
iTunes, Facebook and Twitter. "In countries like Italy, where access
to the Internet is mostly through smartphone, participation has
increased a lot thanks to the mobile app," observed Daniela Paolotti.