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Game Theory may help prevent disease outbreak


The article Game theory can prevent disease outbreaks by Istvan Zoltan Kiss and Nicos Georgiou discusses some issues that we, as society, face when dealing with major outbreaks mainly due to individual and governmental decisions. The authors propose that we can use Game Theory to combat discrepancy in actions by humans and government. The authors begin by giving example of individual families that decide to not vaccinate for the flu, this may actually be an optimal or good individual decision because the individual saves money, short term pain, and negative reaction to the vaccine. While this seems like it puts the individual at risk, they may think that others will be vaccinated so the chance of catching the flu is minimal. If enough people in a population makes this, seemingly, optimal individual decision, it will not be good for the whole population as there will probably be an outbreak. In such cases optimal individual decisions may not be so optimal for the population. The article points out that this has occurred with measles, mumps and rubella in the Western countries as people thought the cost-saving benefit outweighs the risk, because it has become so uncommon, so they make the individual decision to not be vaccinated, this resulted in increase in those diseases.

There may be some individual decisions that may not be best for the population but there are instances of where the individual and group interests align, thus creating a Nash Equilibrium. The authors noted that the travel ban after the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa might have been good decision to contain the disease but this simply delayed spread of the disease, not stop it and it prevented aid workers from helping those affected by it. As we’ve learned, Nash Equilibrium is when changing your own strategy won’t improve your payoff or your situation as long as other’s strategy stays the same. The article states that we can use game theory to prevent people from moving to a place that is having an outbreak. Instead of an unilateral travel ban, the media and authorities can update the severity of the outbreak frequently to the outside population, this will lead to less travel by those individuals who aren’t there to help deal with the outbreak. This essentially slows down travel to the region and works as a travel ban in itself. In this scenario, the individual optimal decision is also the optimal decision for the population/group: because of the danger the authorities may want to place a travel ban to prevent outbreak amongst the population and for an individual they’d want to not travel to the region because of the perceived danger they assess by reading or learning about the outbreak, so both groups get their best strategy without restrictive travel ban. More importantly, this individual thought process can be used by the authorities to take actions in such ways that it creates a Nash Equilibrium, or the authorities can calculate and predict what individuals in society will react and they can implement appropriate measures that minimizes outbreaks and that helps the whole population.


Game Theory may often seem abstract and not realistic in these scenarios but with a large population, say a country’s population or the population of people affected by an outbreak, game theory can be utilized to a greater effect, maybe not by individuals but by governments and authorities.



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September 2018