J R Soc Interface. 2022 Aug;19(193):20220123. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2022.0123. Epub 2022 Aug 3.
Timely forecasts of the emergence, re-emergence and elimination of human infectious diseases allow for proactive, rather than reactive, decisions that save lives. Recent theory suggests that a generic feature of dynamical systems approaching a tipping point-early warning signals (EWS) due to critical slowing down (CSD)-can anticipate disease emergence and elimination. Empirical studies documenting CSD in observed disease dynamics are scarce, but such demonstration of concept is essential to the further development of model-independent outbreak detection systems. Here, we use fitted, mechanistic models of measles transmission in four cities in Niger to detect CSD through statistical EWS. We find that several EWS accurately anticipate measles re-emergence and elimination, suggesting that CSD should be detectable before disease transmission systems cross key tipping points. These findings support the idea that statistical signals based on CSD, coupled with decision-support algorithms and expert judgement, could provide the basis for early warning systems of disease outbreaks.