Will an outbreak exceed available resources for control? Estimating the risk from invading pathogens using practical definitions of a severe epidemic.
Forecasting whether or not initial reports of disease will be followed by a severe epidemic is an important component of disease management. Standard epidemic risk estimates involve assuming that infections occur according to a branching process and correspond to the probability that the outbreak persists beyond the initial stochastic phase. However, an alternative assessment is to predict whether or not initial cases will lead to a severe epidemic in which available control resources are exceeded. We show how this risk can be estimated by considering three practically relevant potential definitions of a severe epidemic; namely, an outbreak in which: (i) a large number of hosts are infected simultaneously; (ii) a large total number of infections occur; and (iii) the pathogen remains in the population for a long period. We show that the probability of a severe epidemic under these definitions often coincides with the standard branching process estimate for the major epidemic probability. However, these practically relevant risk assessments can also be different from the major epidemic probability, as well as from each other. This holds in different epidemiological systems, highlighting that careful consideration of how to classify a severe epidemic is vital for accurate epidemic risk quantification.