CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — High school students investigate Ebola-like outbreaks and administer vaccines through Outbreak!, a new summer course in Illinois that uses online games to encourage critical thinking about fighting infectious diseases.
Dr. Yvette Johnson-Walker, an epidemiologist and clinical instructor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Medicine at U. of I., leads the four-week course with his colleague, Dr. Maung San Myint. The program combines discussion and play – including board games – to explore the science behind epidemics and the social issues that can influence the spread of disease.
Johnson-Walker said she hopes to interest students in public health issues and how they relate to disease emergence, the environment, education and culture of the region where a new outbreak occurs.
For example, students analyze and discuss the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, learn what can happen in places with limited public health resources and infrastructure, and how culture and human behavior can interfere with strategies to stop the spread of an epidemic anywhere in the world. .
They also play the interactive online game Vax!, which represents people as dots connected to other dots by a network of lines. A player can vaccinate three points within the network before the points begin to turn red and the “infection” spreads from point to point. Players must isolate as many remaining healthy points as possible to break the chain of infection, guarantee a 40% survival rate, and advance to the next round. The game shows students which strategies work best to prevent new infections, Johnson-Walker said.
“It looks at networks and how people interact with other people,” she said. “Given a limited supply of vaccines, a player must select who to vaccinate to break disease transmission.”
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention game, Solve the Outbreak, walks students through scenarios involving an Ebola-like fever or foodborne illness and asks them to research the source of the outbreak. As a “disease detective”, each player analyzes the data and assesses next steps to ensure the epidemic does not resurface.
It teaches students about the importance of herd immunity, Johnson-Walker said, and the real obstacles — such as individuals choosing not to vaccinate — that make it harder to stop the spread of infection. These are important concepts when thinking about the development of new vaccines or the best ways to distribute vaccines to protect the whole population, she said.
Another game, Influenza, forces players to make decisions about politics and resources. Should schools be closed? Asking people to stay home? Are international trips affected?
These decisions show how the environment plays a role in emerging diseases, Johnson-Walker said. For example, the success of smallpox eradication was due in part to the lack of a wild carrier who could transmit the disease to more humans. An outbreak like Ebola, where how people interact with wildlife can affect the spread of a disease, makes it much more difficult to control that disease, she said.
“How we react to a new disease is going to be very different depending on where in the world it appears,” Johnson-Walker said.
The home! The course is supported by a grant from the Center for African Studies in Illinois under the Global Reach Area Studies Program initiative.