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How can game theory prevent disease outbreaks?

How can game theory prevent disease outbreaks?


It is easy for planes to be heavily quarantined if multiple passengers on the flight become ill with flu-like symptoms. This usually means a red-flag, as many international travel is one of the best ways to spread critical diseases around the world. In this case, however, grounding the planes may not be the best strategy.


Regarding health, it is challenging for authorities to make decisions that affects the whole population because it is difficult to tell what the best strategy is due to the fact that what is best for individuals may not be the best for the wider population and vice versa. To break this dilemma, game theory comes in. In short, Game theory attempts to “predict how an individual within a group will choose between different strategies, when the outcome of the situation depends on how everyone else in the group behaves”. The difficulty of game theory comes in when you can’t figure out an individual’s optimal strategy without being aware of what all the others will do.


For example, while vaccines are known as very safe, their short-term negative effects that have publicized may weigh the costs more than the benefit of actually getting the vaccination. Of course, if a flu is deadly, it is not the best move to avoid the vaccination. Yet, if everybody in the near population are vaccinated, it is very likely that people are also relatively vaccinated. In this case, not getting vaccinated might appear to be the better choice. However, then there is a problem where if no one in the population gets the vaccinated, no one will be protected leading to a massive outbreak. We have seen catastrophic results of this.


In Game theory, when considering these kind of situations, the best strategy for an individual can often be in conflict with the group. What determines the outcome of an outbreak is indeed the interaction between the individuals involved.


This is why Nash equilibrium, “when changing your own strategy won’t improve your situation, as long as everyone else’s strategy stays the same”, maybe the best strategy in this kind of situation. As the article states: “understanding the Nash equilibrium helps us understand the optimal strategies for all individuals in a group.”



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November 2018