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The Mathematics of Epidemics: History Of and Recent Developments in Epidemic Outbreak Analysis

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Human fascination with epidemics of infectious diseases and the associated patterns of mortality has a long history. Examples include the epidemics discussed by the Chinese scholar, Ssu Kwong, who lived during the Sing Dynasty (AD 960-1279), the epidemics of the Greek scholar Hippocrates (458-377 BC), the rudimentary statistics of John Grant (1620-74) and William Petty (1623-87), who studied the London Bills of Mortality in the seventeenth century, and the detailed description of epidemics by Richard Mead (‘Discourse on Plagues’ 1673-1754) who so nearly interested Isaac Newton in the geometry of epidemic curves.

The foundations of today’s approaches to the mathematical description of infectious disease transmission and control go back to the 1700s with Daniel Bernoulli’s work in 1760 on a simple mathematical model to evaluate the effectiveness of variolation to protect against smallpox. Daniel Bernoulli was one of a number of early mathematicians who turned their skills to probability problems raised by gamblers – often at the card tables in Monte Carlo.

The lecture will chart some of this history, starting with the work of Ronald Ross the Nobel Laureate who discovered the role of mosquitoes in the transmission of malaria, and moving through to the sophisticated models in use today for planning for an influenza pandemic. The application of mathematical approaches to further understanding of disease transmission and control will be illustrated by reference to recent epidemics such as HIV and AIDS , Foot and Mouth disease, SARS and Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).

This talk is part of the Rouse Ball Lectures series.

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