Dr James McCaw

The University of Melbourne
Research Field: Infectious disease epidemiology

Influenza spreads through the community every year, causing many of us to miss work or school, with significant health and economic costs. But the flu can also have far more devastating consequences. In 1918 it killed 40 million people in one year. While we were lucky in 2009 that swine flu was less severe, we must not forget that bird flu has killed over half of those it has infected since 1997. It still poses a real risk of becoming readily transmissible between humans. Influenza is always changing, its future unpredictable and we must develop strategies to minimize its impact on society.

Dr. McCaw uses mathematics and ideas from physics to build models that simulate the transmission of diseases like influenza through the community. He bases the structure of his models on data from laboratory scientists who study viruses, epidemiologists who study disease in the population, public health practitioners and government health departments. These models are then run on computers and their output examined. This allows the development of new strategies for controlling influenza and other transmissible diseases. This work has been used to inform Australia’s response to influenza pandemics and study other diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria.

James has convened a number of professional development courses introducing the concepts of mathematical modeling of infectious diseases to clinical scientists, epidemiologists, public health practitioners and government health departments. Prior to and during the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009, James was interviewed for two in-depth articles on pandemic preparedness, published in The Advertiser (Adelaide) and ABC Science. He also wrote a piece for the Medical Journal of Australia during the early stages of the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.