Unvaccinated infants act as “kindling” to fuel epidemics


By Jim Erickson
Jul 29, 2014 Bookmark and Share

By accounting for season variation in the timing of human births, University of Michigan researchers are hoping to improve the effectiveness of vaccination campaigns in developing countries. Painting by John Megahan.

By accounting for season variation in the timing of human births, University of Michigan researchers are hoping to improve the effectiveness of vaccination campaigns in developing countries. Painting by John Megahan.

Nearly 4 million children under 5 die from vaccine-preventable diseases worldwide each year, and two University of Michigan doctoral ecology students are working to change that.

By taking into account seasonal fluctuations in birth rates, massive vaccination campaigns in the developing world could inoculate more unprotected infants and significantly reduce the number of deaths from diseases like measles, according to Micaela Martinez-Bakker and Kevin Bakker of the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

"If you have lots of kindling, you can have a bigger fire, and that's essentially the role that these susceptible infants play during measles outbreaks. If lots of new births flood into the population before a measles epidemic peaks, they can add fuel to the flames and make that year's epidemic bigger," said Martinez-Bakker, an NSF Doctoral Fellow whose work is supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

"There are predictable times of year when we know there are going to be more infants being born, and we hope that in the future this information will be used to help control epidemics," she said.

The husband-and-wife research team studies how birth seasonality – the variation in the timing and strength of birth pulses throughout the year – can shape outbreaks of childhood infectious diseases.

The research, coauthored by Professors Pej Rohani and Aaron King, was published April 1, 2014, in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. There has been extensive media coverage including by Fox News (national), Business Insider, and an article by Slate.

Michigan News press release. Previously on the U-M Gateway.