Improving the modeling of disease data from the government surveillance system: a case study on malaria in the Brazilian Amazon.
The study of the effect of large-scale drivers (e.g., climate) of human diseases typically relies on aggregate disease data collected by the government surveillance network. The usual approach to analyze these data, however, often ignores a) changes in the total number of individuals examined, b) the bias towards symptomatic individuals in routine government surveillance, and; c) the influence that observations can have on disease dynamics. Here, we highlight the consequences of ignoring the problems listed above and develop a novel modeling framework to circumvent them, which is illustrated using simulations and real malaria data. Our simulations reveal that trends in the number of disease cases do not necessarily imply similar trends in infection prevalence or incidence, due to the strong influence of concurrent changes in sampling effort. We also show that ignoring decreases in the pool of infected individuals due to the treatment of part of these individuals can hamper reliable inference on infection incidence. We propose a model that avoids these problems, being a compromise between phenomenological statistical models and mechanistic disease dynamics models; in particular, a cross-validation exercise reveals that it has better out-of-sample predictive performance than both of these alternative models. Our case study in the Brazilian Amazon reveals that infection prevalence was high in 2004-2008 (prevalence of 4% with 95% CI of 3-5%), with outbreaks (prevalence up to 18%) occurring during the dry season of the year. After this period, infection prevalence decreased substantially (0.9% with 95% CI of 0.8-1.1%), which is due to a large reduction in infection incidence (i.e., incidence in 2008-2010 was approximately one fifth of the incidence in 2004-2008).We believe that our approach to modeling government surveillance disease data will be useful to advance current understanding of large-scale drivers of several diseases.
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