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UGA researchers get grant from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

A research team led by faculty at the University of Georgia and Pennsylvania State University has received a $583,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a new model to predict measles outbreaks worldwide.

This funding is part of a global effort to restore progress toward measles elimination lost during the pandemic.

Measles is a highly contagious disease that most commonly affects children. Despite the widespread availability of measles vaccines, cases are on the rise in the U.S., and measles continues to cause severe illness and death in low- and middle-income countries where the disease burden is high.

“We’re trying to predict risk up to 18 months in advance. This is the first known effort to generate national-level risk predictions for every country in the world. And if successful, the outputs of these tools can be used to allocate resources and prevent measles outbreaks before they happen,” said principal investigator Amy Winter, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UGA’s College of Public Health.

The project team, which includes UGA Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases’ John Drake, brings together experts in epidemiology, statistics and computer science, many with a long background in measles risk assessment.

“Our group has a distinct understanding of measles dynamics,” said Winter, who recently published a feasibility study of eliminating measles and rubella using predominant vaccination strategies in 93 countries with the highest disease burden.

The team will leverage its collective expertise to train and test models with these transmission dynamics in mind, as well as a range of predictors that contribute to outbreak frequency such as a country’s position on a path to elimination.

Once the model is developed, the team plans to provide it to international public health organizations, including the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, with the hope that these organizations can use the tool to allocate resources to countries where outbreaks are imminent.

In addition, they hope to provide a user-friendly software tool that can be customized to a country’s unique needs so local public health leaders can get ahead of an outbreak.

Only when the measles virus is eradicated worldwide can any country rest easy, said Winter.

“Now with the spread of vaccine misinformation and reduction in measles vaccination coverage, as well as the fact that there’s measles outbreaks are occurring globally, the U.S. is at risk of losing elimination status. Measles anywhere poses a risk to unvaccinated populations everywhere,” she said.

Other members of the project team include co-principal investigator Matt Ferrari with Penn State, and Saki Takahashi, William Moss and Shaun Truelove with Johns Hopkins University.

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