Research is underway at Virginia Tech to identify why employees go to work sick and other related behavior in order to design better infectious disease prevention and control strategies.

Achla Marathe, a professor of agricultural and applied economics with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, has received a $1.75 million, five-year research grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health to incorporate social behavior into mathematical models of infectious disease transmission dynamics, with a focus on influenza-type illnesses. 

Marathe will share principal investigator duties with Kaja Abbas, an assistant professor of population health sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Marathe's experience in modeling and simulation of social behavior will complement Abbas's expertise in evaluating public health interventions. 

"We are excited to have a truly transdisciplinary team which brings together researchers with complementary expertise in health policy, computational and mathematical epidemiology, socio-behavioral economics and systems science," said Abbas.

The researchers will incorporate social behavior into infectious disease models, thereby bridging the gap between quantitative modeling and public health practice. They will conduct surveys to identify specific behaviors affecting infection rates and intervention effectiveness. 

Researchers will take into account factors such as the likelihood of whether a person will receive a flu shot and whether the vaccine was administered during the peak of flu season. 

Survey results will then be integrated into detailed mathematical models, the disease will be simulated, and the factors most responsible for the control or spread of disease will be identified.

"The innovative part of the project lies in understanding how individual behavior, disease dynamics, and interventions interrelate across multiple scales, through an internal feedback process," Marathe said. "Understanding this process through detailed simulations will help us organize measurable, significant differences in current public health practices."

Using a systems science approach provides a novel perspective that can lead to more effective public health interventions. The team will determine the limitations in existing plans and design new combinations of interventions that improve health disparities across communities.

"We can go beyond whether paid sick leave is an effective intervention to contain an influenza epidemic, and ask whether it makes a difference if sick leave includes taking care of sick family members," said Marathe.

Additional members of the Virginia Tech research team include Jiangzhuo Chen, Stephen Eubank, Bryan Lewis, and Samarth Swarup of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute; Kevin Boyle of the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, Pam Murray-Tuite of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Hazhir Rahmandad of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

Written by Maureen Lawrence-Kuether and Sherrie Whaley.

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