Scientists question containment measures during epidemics

A Liberian man prepares disinfectant during the 2014 ebola epidemic. Keystone

Containment measures during large-scale epidemics may not be the best way to limit the damage, a Swiss study has found. Placing restrictions on affected societies could affect subsequent resilience.

This content was published on January 31, 2018 - 15:48

The study, prepared by a team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) and published in Nature Scientific Reports, took aim at what is generally seen as the “reasonable” approach to outbreaks such as H1N1 or Zika: social containment.

“Previously, the sole focus was on limiting the number of people infected,” says first author Emanuele Massaro in a press statementExternal link. However, he adds, “we should also consider the cost to society caused by a long-term breakdown of mobility and services, a possible recession and social conflict”.

Simulating the outbreak of an epidemic in New York City, the study included the innovation of looking at the behavioural changes that people would adopt independently of containment measures, such as avoiding public spaces and working at home.


Calculating the peaks and spread of an epidemic under various conditions, they discovered that without political intervention, infections would reach a peak in a short space of time but then quickly revert to their pre-epidemic state.

By limiting movements, the authorities can create even greater risks by “dramatically reducing the resilience of the system” and impairing the longer-term functioning of the society, the researchers found.

Ultimately, they concluded, the results will feed further into a political-ethical dilemma: can authorities allow for more people to be infected in the short-term in order to ensure longer-term stability?

A question also relevant for scientists, according to Massaro: “scientists must remain cautious in these studies and make sure that their core focus is always on human beings.”

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