Bayesian inference in an extended SEIR model with nonparametric disease transmission rate: an application to the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone

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The 2014 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone is analyzed using a susceptible-exposed-infectious-removed (SEIR) epidemic compartmental model. The discrete time-stochastic model for the epidemic evolution is coupled to a set of ordinary differential equations describing the dynamics of the expected proportions of subjects in each epidemic state. The unknown parameters are estimated in a Bayesian framework by combining data on the number of new (laboratory confirmed) Ebola cases reported by the Ministry of Health and prior distributions for the transition rates elicited using information collected by the WHO during the follow-up of specific Ebola cases. The time-varying disease transmission rate is modeled in a flexible way using penalized B-splines. Our framework represents a valuable stochastic tool for the study of an epidemic dynamic even when only irregularly observed and possibly aggregated data are available. Simulations and the analysis of the 2014 Sierra Leone Ebola data highlight the merits of the proposed methodology. In particular, the flexible modeling of the disease transmission rate makes the estimation of the effective reproduction number robust to the misspecification of the initial epidemic states and to underreporting of the infectious cases.

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