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Many infectious diseases are not maintained in a state of equilibrium but exhibit significant fluctuations in prevalence over time. For pathogens that consist of multiple antigenic types or strains, such as influenza, malaria or dengue, these fluctuations often take on the form of regular or irregular epidemic outbreaks in addition to oscillatory prevalence levels of the constituent strains. To explain the observed temporal dynamics and structuring in pathogen populations, epidemiological multi-strain models have commonly evoked strong immune interactions between strains as the predominant driver. Here, with specific reference to dengue, we show how spatially explicit, multi-strain systems can exhibit all of the described epidemiological dynamics even in the absence of immune competition. Instead, amplification of natural stochastic differences in disease transmission, can give rise to persistent oscillations comprising semi-regular epidemic outbreaks and sequential dominance of dengue's four serotypes. Not only can this mechanism explain observed differences in serotype and disease distributions between neighbouring geographical areas, it also has important implications for inferring the nature and epidemiological consequences of immune mediated competition in multi-strain pathogen systems.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS Comput Biol

Publication Date





Communicable Diseases, Dengue, Epidemics, Humans, Models, Biological