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Mathematical biology

Drs. Xiaoqiang Zhao and Xiunan Wang working together to eradicate malaria using mathematical biology.
Drs. Xiaoqiang Zhao and Xiunan Wang working together to eradicate malaria using mathematical biology.

Can a Memorial University mathematical model predict and help control the spread of malaria in Africa?

Dr. Xiunan Wang, who uses mathematical models to study biological problems, thinks so. 

Author of four papers on vector-borne infectious diseases (those not transmitted directly from person to person, such as malaria and Lyme disease), Dr. Wang proposes that mathematical modelling can provide suggestions for controlling disease.

“To date there is no effective vaccine for malaria that can be widely used,” said Dr. Wang, who came to Memorial in 2014 on the recommendation of her PhD supervisor, Dr. Xiaoqiang Zhao, a Memorial University research professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Faculty of Science, who acted as defence chair on her master’s thesis.  

“Professor Zhao is a great mathematician with broad interests and valuable experience in dynamical systems and mathematical biology,” said Dr. Wang. “His enthusiasm in research and teaching has always motivated me. He has provided me with encouragement and advice, not only in my studies but also in daily life. I am very lucky.”

Dr. Zhao is an expert in dynamical systems and mathematical biology, who has recently developed a new theory for periodic and time-delayed compartmental model systems. It is this theory that Dr. Wang uses in her research to help prevent the spread of malaria. 

“We can use numerical simulations to help control malaria transmission in sub-Saharan African countries like Mozambique and Nigeria,” said Dr. Wang, admitting that one of the greatest challenges is getting the local population on board.

“Malaria to them is like flu to us,” she said. “They don’t care a lot about it and this makes it difficult to eliminate. Malaria used to be in Europe, but it is now eradicated. (In certain areas of Africa) bed nets are distributed to keep people safe from mosquito bites, but the people are so poor, they use the nets for fishing.” 

By using the monthly mean temperatures in affected areas, Drs. Wang and Zhao estimated the mosquito biting rate, death rate and the basic reproduction ratio. This in turn allowed them to predict the times when area residents have the greatest chance of becoming infected.

In a nutshell, the team has proven that if people in malaria-prone areas can be convinced to use bed nets when the mosquitoes are biting, then the chances of eradicating malaria in those areas are much greater. 

“If over 75 per cent of humans in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, use bed nets, malaria may be eliminated from this area,” said Dr. Wang, who completed her PhD thesis defence in April and will go to University of Western Ontario in September to work as a postdoctoral research associate.

“For some branches of science, results can be obtained from repeated experiments in labs,” she said. “But for infectious diseases, we can develop models to explain and predict disease transmission and provide practical suggestions for the control of the disease. Through mathematical methods, we can solve some problems biology cannot explain.”

 

Susan Flanagan is the senior communications adviser (acting) with the Office of the Vice-President (Research). You can reach her at susan.flanagan@mun.ca. Learn more about Memorial’s research excellence at www.mun.ca/research.

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