Our team at this year’s Cheltenham Science Festival had a challenge on their hands: finding a fun, safe way to show how an infection can spread across a population – with help from visitors! After considering stickers, wristbands and even hats, they hit upon an ideal pathogen – numbered, plastic clothes pegs. Very visible, easy to use even for children, and, as they discovered, highly infectious in a well-populated place!
Once their ‘pegademic’ had been seeded in the Festival’s Discover Zone, the peg pathogen spread quickly with several epidemic waves occurring throughout the day. ‘Infected’ Festival visitors were advised to visit our ‘Treatment Centre’ table, where Dr Erin Lafferty, Dr Gwen Knight, and Dr Albert van Hoek from the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases and the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Immunisation were on hand to record their peg number and time of infection along with their age and gender. Visitors were then informed that they were now infectious and given pegs with their specific number to transmit the ‘infection’ to others in the room.
Over a thousand people passed through the Discover Zone on Saturday 6 June, and at least 280 people caught the peg infection over the course of nearly five hours. Researchers had been initially concerned that people would feel awkward approaching and ‘infecting’ someone they didn’t know, but the Cheltenham adults and children did not seem unduly perturbed. Although a few people wandered around the exhibits with their pegs for up to two hours, most passed the infection on quickly, fuelling the epidemic.
Other fun demonstrations at our Discover Zone booth, facilitated by Clare Wenham and Dr Mark Jit, included a vaccination game and ‘pathogen mix n’ match’. The first game used different numbers of blue (vaccinated people) and red counters (people susceptible to infection) on a chess board to demonstrate herd immunity in a given population, and the second game challenged visitors to order pathogens by their reproduction numbers. Most visitors were astonished to learn that Ebola had the lowest reproduction number, which stimulated interesting discussions about transmissibility vs. disease severity. They also used cuddly toy microbes to chat to younger children about what different pathogens that they have heard of before, like chicken pox and Norovirus, look like and how they spread.
For those whose mathematical modelling curiosity was not yet sated, Erin, Albert and Gwen starred in a session for over 120 people entitled Can we predict pandemics? Kicking things off with a game involving coloured plastic balls flying about the room to show a pathogen with a reproduction number of two travelling through the totally susceptible audience, they discussed the role of mathematical modelling in predicting infection spread in the context of an epidemic or a pandemic. This included an interactive discussion of how real infection data can be used to predict future infection spread, and the ability of a model to assist in decisions surrounding who to vaccinate and when.
People stayed to ask further questions long after the talk had finished, and were keen to find out more about whether models could take social and cultural aspects of disease transmission into account. They also asked more biological questions around why and how pathogens mutate and if this could be included in models, as well as whether our immune systems will ever evolve to the point where we don’t need vaccines.
The team worked with over 800 people during the course of the Festival, and were amazed with levels of engagement:
Erin Lafferty said:
“Festivals like this really highlight how interested people are in science. It is extremely rewarding to work hard on a talk about what you do, and then witness an audience really enjoying it. As scientists, public engagement not only provides a great opportunity to share our work, but also gives us an insight into what people think about it. Very often, these conversations produce thought-provoking questions – some of which we cannot answer or might not have considered – which can provide new perspectives for our research.”
Mark Jit said:
“The experience was fun and extremely rewarding, although harder work than lecturing! People seemed to really enjoy our games, and some of the teenagers were fascinated with a computer-simulated disease model we displayed. Hopefully they will be the mathematical modellers of the future.”
Photo 1: The School’s Cheltenham Festival 2015 team Credit: Albert van Hoek
Photo 2: Games on the stand Credit: LSHTM
Photo 3: ‘Can we predict pandemics?’ speakers Credit: LSHTM