What is an Epidemic Model?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2019
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An epidemic model is a representation of a disease epidemic established by mapping out known information and using that to make projections. Epidemic models are used by epidemiologists, researchers who specialize in the study of disease outbreaks. Being able to model epidemics is important both for studying historic epidemics and dealing with ongoing disease outbreaks. Government agencies and health departments use a variety of modeling techniques to assist them with public health emergencies.

When modeling a historic epidemic, researchers have the advantage of a wealth of data that can be plugged into the epidemic model. Modeling epidemics that have already happened is important because it provides information that can be used in projections in the future. It also provides insight into how epidemics spread and where people might have gone wrong during the epidemic, allowing researchers to identify key points in the epidemic time line that may come up with future outbreaks.

Epidemiologists can also use an epidemic model to answer questions about an ongoing disease outbreak. Using available information and data from previous models, they can make predictions about how fast an epidemic will move, where and how it is likely to spread, and how many people will be involved. This information can be used in an attempt to contain the epidemic and to stay one step ahead of it. These models are constantly adjusted as new data rolls in.


People interested in the transmission of communicable disease also use epidemic modeling to create hypothetical scenarios. These are used in role playing that gives people an opportunity to practice responding to epidemics. An epidemic model can also uncover weaknesses in public health policy by showing the areas where people fall short in a role play that models a sample epidemic.

Specialized computer software can be used to make an epidemic model. This software allows people to enter large amounts of data, including variables, and to easily manipulate the model. Historically, this work was done by hand and it could be painstaking. One advantage to computer modeling is that it can be networked with other computers to update with real time data from other sources, including everything from weather patterns to genetic typing of disease done in the lab.

Rapid action is necessary when outbreaks are just starting to occur. Using an epidemic model can help officials uncover answers to questions that come up, such as where the epidemic originated and where it might be traveling to.


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