Sounding The Alarm

UGA disease ecologist is predicting the next outbreak

John Drake

Director, Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases

Distinguished Research Professor

Associate Dean for Academic Affairs

Odum School of Ecology

Written by Aaron Hale

Published 10.19.17

Think of Jenga, the game in which two players remove wooden blocks from the lower part of the tower and place them at its top.

After a few turns, the now skeletal tower becomes unstable. Just before it crashes and the game’s winner is determined, the tower wobbles back and forth. It’s reached its tipping point.

That wobble, the reflection of a physical phenomenon called “critical slowing down,” can happen in an ecosystem just before the emergence of a new infectious disease—at least in theory—says John Drake, a Distinguished Research Professor in UGA’s Odum School of Ecology.

When a devastating Ebola outbreak swept through West Africa, no one saw it coming. By the time it was contained, it claimed tens of thousands of lives. Other deadly outbreaks such as Zika virus or avian flu have the potential to take a catastrophic toll.

Researchers at UGA and other institutions are working tirelessly to develop effective treatments for these diseases. But what if health officials could predict where outbreaks are poised to occur before they do—to find that wobble before everything comes crashing down—and establish preventive measures?

What if health officials could predict where outbreaks are poised to occur before they do and establish preventive measures?

Drake believes predicting an ecosystem’s critical slowing down before an outbreak is the key. He and other researchers are working to devise an early warning system for infectious diseases, which could save lives and allow public health resources to be used more efficiently and effectively. Such a system would take a holistic view of how a disease spreads within an ecosystem, keeping in mind that most emerging infectious diseases originate in animals. The system will use computers to analyze large amounts of data measuring environmental, epidemiological and other factors, looking for signs of trouble.

If the tipping point of an epidemic is like a wobbling Jenga tower, then constructing a system to detect disease outbreaks before they reach an epidemic is “a tricky scientific puzzle,” says Drake. The tricky part, or at least one of them, is figuring out which factors will be able to sound the alarm.

Infectious disease is a problem for human health and public health, but being trained as an ecologist is a huge asset.

John Drake Director, Center for Ecology of Infectious Diseases

Of course, disease ecologists aren’t building big jigsaw puzzles on a table top. They are creating intricate models in computers. These models attempt to encapsulate the key factors that lead to a disease outbreak: a change in climate or closer human contact with mosquitos and other animals that spread diseases.

“We’re bringing in all kinds of observations and experimental results and seeking to synthesize those to develop a coherent picture of what’s going on,” Drake says.

As they’re built, the models can be tested for their ability to predict and study “what if” scenarios as researchers continue to hone the best data sources.

For Drake, the puzzle-solving aspect of this work and the opportunity to do something that no one has done before is what drew him to scientific study. But now he’s driven by a commitment to finding solutions for deadly diseases.

“It’s a puzzle for which it matters that we put it all together,” he says.

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