The spatial resolution of epidemic peaks

Harriet L Mills, Steven Riley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)
286 Downloads (Pure)


The emergence of novel respiratory pathogens can challenge the capacity of key health care resources, such as intensive care units, that are constrained to serve only specific geographical populations. An ability to predict the magnitude and timing of peak incidence at the scale of a single large population would help to accurately assess the value of interventions designed to reduce that peak. However, current disease-dynamic theory does not provide a clear understanding of the relationship between: epidemic trajectories at the scale of interest (e.g. city); population mobility; and higher resolution spatial effects (e.g. transmission within small neighbourhoods). Here, we used a spatially-explicit stochastic meta-population model of arbitrary spatial resolution to determine the effect of resolution on model-derived epidemic trajectories. We simulated an influenza-like pathogen spreading across theoretical and actual population densities and varied our assumptions about mobility using Latin-Hypercube sampling. Even though, by design, cumulative attack rates were the same for all resolutions and mobilities, peak incidences were different. Clear thresholds existed for all tested populations, such that models with resolutions lower than the threshold substantially overestimated population-wide peak incidence. The effect of resolution was most important in populations which were of lower density and lower mobility. With the expectation of accurate spatial incidence datasets in the near future, our objective was to provide a framework for how to use these data correctly in a spatial meta-population model. Our results suggest that there is a fundamental spatial resolution for any pathogen-population pair. If underlying interactions between pathogens and spatially heterogeneous populations are represented at this resolution or higher, accurate predictions of peak incidence for city-scale epidemics are feasible.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1003561
Number of pages9
JournalPLoS Computational Biology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 10 Apr 2014


  • Epidemics
  • Geography
  • Stochastic Processes


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