To explore the suitability of current approaches to forecasting emerging diseases, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched the 2014-2015 DARPA Chikungunya Challenge to forecast the number of cases and spread of chikungunya disease in the Americas. Challenge participants (n=38 during final evaluation) provided predictions of chikungunya epidemics across the Americas for a six-month period, from September 1, 2014 to February 16, 2015, to be evaluated by comparison with incidence data reported to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). This manuscript presents an overview of the challenge and a summary of the approaches used by the winners.
Emerging pathogens such as Zika, chikungunya, Ebola, and dengue viruses are serious threats to national and global health security. Accurate forecasts of emerging epidemics and their severity are critical to minimizing subsequent mortality, morbidity, and economic loss. The recent introduction of chikungunya and Zika virus to the Americas underscores the need for better methods for disease surveillance and forecasting.
We conclude that with careful consideration and understanding of the relative advantages and disadvantages of particular methods, implementation of an effective prediction system is feasible. However, there is a need to improve the quality of the data in order to more accurately predict the course of epidemics.
Participant submissions were evaluated by a team of non-competing government subject matter experts based on numerical accuracy and methodology. Although this manuscript does not include in-depth analyses of the results, cursory analyses suggest that simpler models appear to outperform more complex approaches that included, for example, demographic information and transportation dynamics, due to the reporting biases, which can be implicitly captured in statistical models. Mosquito-dynamics, population specific information, and dengue-specific information correlated best with prediction accuracy.