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Many zoonotic, novel infectious diseases in humans appear as sporadic infections with spatially and temporally restricted outbreaks, as seen with influenza A(H5N1). Adaptation is often a key factor for successfully establishing sustained human-to-human transmission. Here we use simple mathematical models to describe different adaptation scenarios with particular reference to spatial heterogeneity within the human population. We present analytical expressions for the probability of emergence per introduction, as well as the waiting time to a successful emergence event. Furthermore, we derive general analytical results for the statistical properties of emergence events, including the probability distribution of outbreak sizes. We compare our analytical results with a stochastic model, which has previously been studied computationally. Our results suggest that, for typical connection strengths between communities, spatial heterogeneity has only a weak effect on outbreak size distributions, and on the risk of emergence per introduction. For example, if R₀ = 1.4 or larger, any village connected to a large city by just ten commuters a day is, effectively, just a part of the city when considering the chances of emergence and the outbreak size distribution. We present empirical data on commuting patterns and show that the vast majority of communities for which such data are available are at least this well interconnected. For plausible parameter ranges, the effects of spatial heterogeneity are likely to be dominated by the evolutionary biology of host adaptation. We conclude by discussing implications for surveillance and control of emerging infections.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS Comput Biol

Publication Date





Algorithms, Animals, Biological Evolution, Cities, Communicable Diseases, Emerging, Computational Biology, Computer Simulation, Demography, Host-Pathogen Interactions, Humans, Influenza A Virus, H5N1 Subtype, Models, Biological, Orthomyxoviridae Infections, Reproducibility of Results, Rural Population, Stochastic Processes, Transportation, Zoonoses