Detecting critical slowing down in high-dimensional epidemiological systems.


Despite medical advances, the emergence and re-emergence of infectious diseases continue to pose a public health threat. Low-dimensional epidemiological models predict that epidemic transitions are preceded by the phenomenon of critical slowing down (CSD). This has raised the possibility of anticipating disease (re-)emergence using CSD-based early-warning signals (EWS), which are statistical moments estimated from time series data. For EWS to be useful at detecting future (re-)emergence, CSD needs to be a generic (model-independent) feature of epidemiological dynamics irrespective of system complexity. Currently, it is unclear whether the predictions of CSD-derived from simple, low-dimensional systems-pertain to real systems, which are high-dimensional. To assess the generality of CSD, we carried out a simulation study of a hierarchy of models, with increasing structural complexity and dimensionality, for a measles-like infectious disease. Our five models included: i) a nonseasonal homogeneous Susceptible-Exposed-Infectious-Recovered (SEIR) model, ii) a homogeneous SEIR model with seasonality in transmission, iii) an age-structured SEIR model, iv) a multiplex network-based model (Mplex) and v) an agent-based simulator (FRED). All models were parameterised to have a herd-immunity immunization threshold of around 90% coverage, and underwent a linear decrease in vaccine uptake, from 92% to 70% over 15 years. We found evidence of CSD prior to disease re-emergence in all models. We also evaluated the performance of seven EWS: the autocorrelation, coefficient of variation, index of dispersion, kurtosis, mean, skewness, variance. Performance was scored using the Area Under the ROC Curve (AUC) statistic. The best performing EWS were the mean and variance, with AUC > 0.75 one year before the estimated transition time. These two, along with the autocorrelation and index of dispersion, are promising candidate EWS for detecting disease emergence.

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