We calculated the proportion of infections within households during pandemic years compared with non-pandemic years using a deterministic model of household transmission in which all combinations of household size and individual infection states were enumerated explicitly. We found that the proportion of infections that occur within households was only partially influenced by the hazard h of infection within household relative to the hazard of infection outside the household, especially for small basic reproductive numbers. During pandemics, the number of within-household infections was lower than one might expect for a given h because many of the susceptible individuals were infected from the community and the number of susceptible individuals within household was thus depleted rapidly. In addition, we found that for the value of h at which 30% of infections occur within households during non-pandemic years, a similar 31% of infections occur within households during pandemic years.
The key epidemiological difference between pandemic and seasonal influenza is that the population is largely susceptible during a pandemic, whereas, during non-pandemic seasons a level of immunity exists. The population-level efficacy of household-based mitigation strategies depends on the proportion of infections that occur within households. In general, mitigation measures such as isolation and quarantine are more effective at the population level if the proportion of household transmission is low.
We suggest that a trade off between the community force of infection and the number of susceptible individuals in a household explains an apparent invariance in the proportion of infections that occur in households in our model. During a pandemic, although there are more susceptible individuals in a household, the community force of infection is very high. However, during non-pandemic years, the force of infection is much lower but there are fewer susceptible individuals within the household.