The approach, developed by researchers from Oregon State University and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, could become enormously valuable to agencies that are trying to understand what a disease might do, how it may spread or how it could best be controlled.
The findings are being published in a professional journal, Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
"Our climate is changing, we face overpopulation and overcrowding, and increasing encounters between humans and other animal species," said Phil Rossignol, a medical entomologist and professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at OSU. "It's clear that these demographic and ecological changes may cause significant changes and potential new risks from many diseases, but it's been very difficult to predict just what we can expect."
In the past, Rossignol said, the changes and spread of a disease were only clear in retrospect. Until now researchers have rarely had any type of system that could accurately suggest how a disease might react, based on changes in climatic, ecological or other conditions.
The new approach was developed by Rossignol and Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, associate director for science at the Corvallis laboratory of the EPA.
"This actually builds upon the science of loop analysis, an engineering technique that was first developed in the 1950s," Orme-Zavaleta said. "It combines an understanding of the ecology of a disease with a mathematical system that can predict what might happen if any part of its ecology changes, such as habitat alterations or climatic change."