Dr. Heidi Brown, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, teamed up with a professor of mathematics, to win an international competition for their development of a model to predict an outbreak of chikungunya, a mosquito-borne viral disease that causes debilitating joint and muscle pain.
[Photo: Col. Matt Hepburn, the DARPA program manager for the CHIKV Challenge, with (from left) University of Arizona researchers Dr. Joceline Lega, Dr. Heidi Brown, and Dr. Arati Prabhakar, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]
The competition was sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which commissions research on behalf of the U.S. Department of Defense. Drs. Brown and Lega took first place and a $150,000 prize, which will support their ongoing collaboration.
DARPA launched the CHIKV Challenge to accelerate the development of new infectious disease forecasting methods that would allow governments and health organizations to take more effective proactive steps to limit CHIKV’s spread. CHIKV’s debilitating symptoms pose a growing public health and national security risk, DARPA noted.
Dr. Brown said mosquito-borne diseases in particular are difficult to predict due to the complexity of their systems.
“We try to model the interactions between mosquitoes, pathogens and humans — each adapting, evolving, changing their behavior by both the behavior of the other and the environment in which these interactions exist. Add to that a changing climate.”
“Any headway we can make in predicting the number of cases, when cases will peak, when an outbreak will end or how severe an outbreak will be is helpful in reducing the disease burden.”