Epidemiological determinants of the pattern and magnitude of the vCJD epidemic in Great Britain

Azra C. Ghani, Neil M. Ferguson, Christl A. Donnelly, Thomas J. Hagenaars, Roy M. Anderson


Understanding the epidemiology and aetiology of new–variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob (vCJD) disease in humans has become increasingly important given the scientific evidence linking it to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle and hence the wide exposure of the population of Great Britain (GB) to potentially infectious tissue. The recent analysis undertaken to determine the risk to the population from dorsal route ganglia illustrated the danger in presenting point estimates rather than ranges of scenarios in the face of uncertainty. We present a mathematical template that relates the past pattern of the BSE epidemic in cattle to the future course of any vCJD epidemic in humans, and use extensive scenario analysis to explore the wide range of possible outcomes given the uncertainty in epidemiological determinants. We demonstrate that the average number of humans infected by one infectious bovine and the incubation period distribution are the two epidemiological factors that have the greatest impact on epidemic size and duration. Using the time–series of the BSE epidemic and the cases seen to date, we show that the minimum length of the incubation period is approximately nine years and that at least 20% of the cases diagnosed to date were exposed prior to 1986. We also demonstrate that the current age distribution of vCJD cases can only arise if younger people were either exposed to a greater extent, more susceptible to infection, or have shorter incubation periods. Extensive scenario analyses show that given the information currently available, the very high degree of uncertainty in the future size of the epidemic will remain for the next 3–5 years. Furthermore, we demonstrate that this uncertainty is unlikely to be reduced by mass screening for late–stage infection.

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