Chisholm RH, Campbell PT, Wu Y, Tong SYC, McVernon J, Geard N (2018) Implications of asymptomatic carriers for infectious disease transmission and control. Royal Society Open Science 5:172341. DOI: 10.1098/rsos.172341
For infectious pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus pneumoniae, some hosts may carry the pathogen and transmit it to others, yet display no symptoms themselves. These asymptomatic carriers contribute to the spread of disease but go largely undetected and can therefore undermine efforts to control transmission. Understanding the natural history of carriage and its relationship to disease is important for the design of effective interventions to control transmission. Mathematical models of infectious diseases are frequently used to inform decisions about control and should therefore accurately capture the role played by asymptomatic carriers. In practice, incorporating asymptomatic carriers into models is challenging due to the sparsity of direct evidence. This absence of data leads to uncertainty in estimates of model parameters and, more fundamentally, in the selection of an appropriate model structure. To assess the implications of this uncertainty, we systematically reviewed published models of carriage and propose a new model of disease transmission with asymptomatic carriage. Analysis of our model shows how different assumptions about the role of asymptomatic carriers can lead to different conclusions about the transmission and control of disease. Critically, selecting an inappropriate model structure, even when parameters are correctly estimated, may lead to over- or under-estimates of intervention effectiveness. Our results provide a more complete understanding of the role of asymptomatic carriers in transmission and highlight the importance of accurately incorporating carriers into models used to make decisions about disease control.