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Written By

Tianna Killoran


College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

13 July 2021

Mapping disease outbreaks

Whether it’s tracking outbreaks of COVID-19 or monitoring white spot disease on prawn farms, JCU Senior Research Fellow Dr. Michael Meehan says the answers to effectively controlling these infectious diseases lay in the numbers.

Michael works with the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM), a research institute based at JCU. Michael investigates the use of mathematical modelling to help to surveil, predict, and contain infectious diseases. He conducts his research alongside biologists, public health professionals and other clinicians to understand disease outbreaks, whether in humans or crustaceans. “Once the initial data is generated, I mostly work on the theoretical side to develop the models,” Michael says. While he may not be handling the diseases in the laboratory, it’s his mathematical modelling of outbreaks that helps to predict and manage future outbreaks.

Michael was recently awarded a Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) by the Australian Research Council (ARC). This funding will support Michael’s research project that investigates the use of infectious disease modelling for surveillance of diseases in humans and prawns alike. The project over three years works alongside other researchers at the AITHM who are investigating ways to surveil and manage outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Michael’s important mathematical modelling of various disease outbreaks allows the Australian health system to develop better tools to detect and mitigate infectious disease outbreaks. The real-time surveillance of these outbreaks is not only a breakthrough for researchers but provides real-time information systems for the public as well.

Running the numbers

“I really enjoy the mathematics and programming and other skills that are required to do the job, but perhaps the biggest benefit is that it’s very rewarding.” 

JCU Senior Research Fellow Dr. Michael Meehan

At the core of Michael’s work is the mathematics. “I love that I still get to play with equations all day,” he says. Michael started his time at JCU studying sciences and went on to complete a PhD in theoretical astrophysics and cosmology. While he used to apply mathematical modelling to problems of dark matter and dark energy in alternative cosmological models, his most recent research has been more down to earth.

The infectious disease modelling requires a range of Michael’s skills in mathematics and programming, but also uses data gathered by experts in molecular biology, public health research, and even farmers.

Michael works alongside others at the AITHM and provides his math skills to solve a range of problems around infectious disease outbreaks. “Emma McBryde has done a great deal of research into tuberculosis hotspots in Papua New Guinea. I’ve been working with her to apply the results of her research so that we can apply the mathematical modelling worldwide,” he says.

Research at the AITHM offered Michael a unique opportunity to see the immediate results of his research. “Last year we were heavily involved with the modelling for COVID-19. We were part of the group that informed policy makers who designed our lockdown policies. The benefit of the work is very immediate.”

Michael finds the best part of his research is the ability to produce tangible outcomes that can make a difference for public health practitioners and policy makers. In the future, you won’t need to be a math whiz to monitor infectious disease outbreaks. “We’re planning to produce modelling software that will hopefully enable other researchers and public health end users to apply the methods that we’ve developed,” he says.

Michael Meehan writing on clear glass with a whiteboard marker with a laboratory in the background
Aerial view of prawn farms with water contained in various large pools
Left: Michael Meehan working on mathematical modeling supplied by AITHM. Right: Prawn farming.

Finding solutions for prawns

More recently, Michael has been putting his mathematical and programming expertise to tackle other disease outbreaks. Early in 2021 he was awarded a DECRA grant that supports research into disease surveillance of prawn farms, particularly white spot disease.

White spot disease is a viral infection that spreads among crustaceans such as prawns, yabbies, and crabs. While the virus is no risk to humans, it causes widespread deaths of prawns and can devastate these industries. It costs the Australian prawn industry millions of dollars in stock loss and biosecurity measures every year.

But Michael says his modelling of infectious diseases hasn’t been applied to these agricultural settings such as prawn farms before. While we may have seen the success of this modelling used during the COVID-19 outbreak and even to contain disease in agricultural settings, this is a new frontier.

Working among a team of other researchers who have coordinated with prawn farmers and gathered important data, Michael has been able to make plans for mapping out the white spot outbreaks. He explains that a number of prawn samples have already been collected that will soon be sequenced by molecular biologists in the laboratory. After that, Michael will take these genomic sequences and apply the mathematical modelling.

Achieving these results requires Michael’s expertise on the theoretical side of the research, but also includes a whole range of other stakeholders. “The research involves input from farmers to molecular biologists to laboratory research assistants,” he says. While Michael and the team of researchers are in the early stages of applying the infectious disease monitoring, it is hoped that the work can be applied from human to agricultural infectious disease outbreaks worldwide. With the struggles caused by disease outbreaks, this research finds new ways to keep Australians healthy and safe.

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