After the honeymoon, the divorce: Unexpected outcomes of disease control measures against endemic infections

by Brandon Hollingsworth, Kenichi W. Okamoto, Alun L. Lloyd

The lack of effective vaccines for many endemic diseases often forces policymakers to rely on non-immunizing control measures, such as vector control, to reduce the massive burden of these diseases. Controls can have well-known counterintuitive effects on endemic infections, including the honeymoon effect, in which partially effective controls cause not only a greater initial reduction in infection than expected, but also large outbreaks during control resulting from accumulation of susceptibles. Unfortunately, many control measures cannot be maintained indefinitely, and the results of cessation are poorly understood. Here, we examine the results of stopped or failed non-immunizing control measures in endemic settings. By using a mathematical model to compare the cumulative number of cases expected with and without control, we show that deployment of control can lead to a larger total number of infections, counting from the time that control started, than without any control–the divorce effect. This result is directly related to the population-level loss of immunity resulting from non-immunizing controls and is seen in a variety of models when non-immunizing controls are used against an infection that confers immunity. Finally, we examine three control plans for minimizing the magnitude of the divorce effect in seasonal infections and show that they are incapable of eliminating the divorce effect. While we do not suggest stopping control programs that rely on non-immunizing controls, our results strongly argue that the accumulation of susceptibility should be considered before deploying such controls against endemic infections when indefinite use of the control is unlikely. We highlight that our results are particularly germane to endemic mosquito-borne infections, such as dengue virus, both for routine management involving vector control and for field trials of novel control approaches, and in the context of non-pharmaceutical interventions aimed at COVID-19.

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