Just like Pittsburgh’s beloved neighbor Fred Rogers, who inspired and educated generations of children, a computer modeling software system named after him is teaching us how to use scientific data to improve health and save lives.
FRED – the Framework for Reconstructing Epidemiological Dynamics – has been used for more than a decade to predict the spread of influenza throughout communities. Originally developed to simulate infectious disease epidemics, FRED enables users to model different health conditions and to study patterns of how those conditions vary over time in specific populations. This allows researchers to estimate the impact of different vaccination and mitigation strategies and informs the development of policy in real-time.
FRED also forms the backbone of a forward-thinking laboratory at Pitt Public Health called the Public Health Dynamics Lab (PHDL). Recently awarded two contracts by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – one addressing influenza – the PHDL is now also using the FRED system to address one of the most challenging public health issues today: the opioid epidemic.
The PHDL’s CDC-funded influenza contract brings together a multidisciplinary team from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University to expand on a primary modeling platform. This version of FRED represents every person in an actual geographic region using census-based data to create realistic social networks. Accurate to the level of a census block, the program simulates interactions at home, work and other neighborhood settings. FRED turns data into information that provides researchers with a visualization of how an epidemic could spread throughout real communities, and how mitigating factors, such as immunizations and personal health behaviors, could affect outcomes. This information is used to forecast and evaluate public health policies like paid sick leave.
A separate contract involves the use of FRED to evaluate Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) in multiple states. The PHDL has developed an OUD model that allows an individual to choose a specific county in one of those states and one of two opioid interventions: the availability of Naloxone, an antidote that reverses the effect of an opioid overdose, and the number of buprenorphine prescriptions available. (Buprenorphine is a medication used to treat opioid addiction.) The model is available for use and observation online and gives insight into the public health response to the opioid epidemic and other emergencies.
The PHDL includes more than 40 faculty and staff, including epidemiologists, biostatisticians, behavioral scientists, public health policy experts, and computational scientists. They collaborate to produce the next generation of analytic tools for exploring critical public health problems.
Mark S. Roberts, MD, professor, Health Policy and Management, is the director of the PHDL and a researcher with expertise in vaccination policy and infectious disease modeling. Dr. Roberts is also an internist and decision scientist with nearly four decades of experience building complex models for multiple diseases including liver disease, HIV, hepatitis C, measles, influenza, COVID-19 and OUD. Currently, he is the principal investigator for one of only four CDC-funded Influenza Modeling Centers.
Christina Mair, PhD, was recently appointed as associate director of the PHDL. Dr. Mair is a social epidemiologist and associate professor of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences.