Erratic Flu Vaccination Emerges from Short-Sighted Behavior in Contact Networks
The effectiveness of seasonal influenza vaccination programs depends on individual-level compliance. Perceptions about risks associated with infection and vaccination can strongly influence vaccination decisions and thus the ultimate course of an epidemic. Here we investigate the interplay between contact patterns, influenza-related behavior, and disease dynamics by incorporating game theory into network models. When individuals make decisions based on past epidemics, we find that individuals with many contacts vaccinate, whereas individuals with few contacts do not. However, the threshold number of contacts above which to vaccinate is highly dependent on the overall network structure of the population and has the potential to oscillate more wildly than has been observed empirically. When we increase the number of prior seasons that individuals recall when making vaccination decisions, behavior and thus disease dynamics become less variable. For some networks, we also find that higher flu transmission rates may, counterintuitively, lead to lower (vaccine-mediated) disease prevalence. Our work demonstrates that rich and complex dynamics can result from the interaction between infectious diseases, human contact patterns, and behavior. When influenza spreads through a human population, its dynamics are shaped by both the complex patterns of contact that arise through our daily activities and individual decisions about the prevention and treatment of flu infections. However, until recently, mathematical models of flu transmission have ignored complex interaction and behavioral patterns in order to facilitate mathematical analyses. Here, we combine two recent approaches to modeling flu–network theory and game theory–to address the interplay between contact patterns and host vaccination decisions during seasonal flu outbreaks. Intuitively, the more contacts one has, the more likely he or she is to vaccinate. However, under the assumption that people make rational decisions based on complete information about the prior seasonal epidemic, vaccination decisions are predicted to vacillate dramatically. A severe epidemic in one year inspires high vaccination rates in the following year; this causes a milder epidemic which then leads to lower vaccination rates in the following year; and the cycle begins anew. We find further that the more homogeneous the contact patterns, the more pronounced the vacillations will be, and that decision-making based on multiple past seasons (rather than just one) leads to much more consistent behavior.