PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States
[Accessed 16 December 2017]
Biological Sciences – Ecology:
Critical dynamics in population vaccinating behavior
Demetri Pananos, Thomas M. Bury, Clara Wang, Justin Schonfeld, Sharada P. Mohanty, Brendan Nyhan, Marcel Salathé, and Chris T. Bauch
PNAS 2017 ; published ahead of print December 11, 2017, doi:10.1073/pnas.1704093114
Complex adaptive systems exhibit characteristic dynamics near tipping points such as critical slowing down (declining resilience to perturbations). We studied Twitter and Google search data about measles from California and the United States before and after the 2014–2015 Disneyland, California measles outbreak. We find critical slowing down starting a few years before the outbreak. However, population response to the outbreak causes resilience to increase afterward. A mathematical model of measles transmission and population vaccine sentiment predicts the same patterns. Crucially, critical slowing down begins long before a system actually reaches a tipping point. Thus, it may be possible to develop analytical tools to detect populations at heightened risk of a future episode of widespread vaccine refusal.
Vaccine refusal can lead to renewed outbreaks of previously eliminated diseases and even delay global eradication. Vaccinating decisions exemplify a complex, coupled system where vaccinating behavior and disease dynamics influence one another. Such systems often exhibit critical phenomena—special dynamics close to a tipping point leading to a new dynamical regime. For instance, critical slowing down (declining rate of recovery from small perturbations) may emerge as a tipping point is approached. Here, we collected and geocoded tweets about measles–mumps–rubella vaccine and classified their sentiment using machine-learning algorithms. We also extracted data on measles-related Google searches. We find critical slowing down in the data at the level of California and the United States in the years before and after the 2014–2015 Disneyland, California measles outbreak. Critical slowing down starts growing appreciably several years before the Disneyland outbreak as vaccine uptake declines and the population approaches the tipping point. However, due to the adaptive nature of coupled behavior–disease systems, the population responds to the outbreak by moving away from the tipping point, causing “critical speeding up” whereby resilience to perturbations increases. A mathematical model of measles transmission and vaccine sentiment predicts the same qualitative patterns in the neighborhood of a tipping point to greatly reduced vaccine uptake and large epidemics. These results support the hypothesis that population vaccinating behavior near the disease elimination threshold is a critical phenomenon. Developing new analytical tools to detect these patterns in digital social data might help us identify populations at heightened risk of widespread vaccine refusal.