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Video Games Offer Clues to Help Curb Animal Disease Outbreaks

As Asia and Europe battle African swine fever outbreaks, University of Vermont (UVM) research shows how farmers’ risk attitudes affect the spread of infectious animal diseases and offers a first-of-its kind model for testing disease control and prevention strategies.

Strengthening biosecurity is widely considered the best strategy to reduce the devastating impact of disease outbreaks in the multi-billion-dollar global swine industry, but successfully doing so comes down to human decision-making, a UVM study shows. The study, published June 25 in Frontiers in Veterinary Science, is the first of its kind to include human behavior in infectious disease outbreak projections — a critical element that has largely been ignored in previous epidemiological models, the university said. Incorporating theories of behavior change, communications, and economic decision-making into disease models gives a more accurate depiction of how outbreak scenarios play out in the real-world to better inform prevention and control strategies, the announcement said.

“We’ve come to realize that human decisions are critical to this picture,” said Gabriela Bucini, a postdoctoral researcher in UVM’s Department of Plant and Soil Science and lead author of the study. “We are talking about incredibly virulent diseases that can be transmitted in tiny amounts of feed and manure. Ultimately, controlling these diseases is up to the people in the production system who decide whether or not to invest and comply with biosecurity practices.”
Seeking to understand the role of human behavior in animal disease outbreaks, the researchers designed a series of video games in which players assumed the roles of hog farmers and were required to make risk management decisions in different situations. Observing how players responded to various biosecurity threats provided data used to simulate the spread of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus — one of the most severe infectious diseases in the U.S. swine industry — in a regional, real-world hog production system.

NIFA supports this research project with the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.

Read the article at UVM.

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