Symbolic transfer entropy reveals the age structure of pandemic influenza transmission from high-volume influenza-like illness data.
Existing methods to infer the relative roles of age groups in epidemic transmission can normally only accommodate a few age classes, and/or require data that are highly specific for the disease being studied. Here, symbolic transfer entropy (STE), a measure developed to identify asymmetric transfer of information between stochastic processes, is presented as a way to reveal asymmetric transmission patterns between age groups in an epidemic. STE provides a ranking of which age groups may dominate transmission, rather than a reconstruction of the explicit between-age-group transmission matrix. Using simulations, we establish that STE can identify which age groups dominate transmission even when there are differences in reporting rates between age groups and even if the data are noisy. Then, the pairwise STE is calculated between time series of influenza-like illness for 12 age groups in 884 US cities during the autumn of 2009. Elevated STE from 5 to 19 year-olds indicates that school-aged children were likely the most important transmitters of infection during the autumn wave of the 2009 pandemic in the USA. The results may be partially confounded by higher rates of physician-seeking behaviour in children compared to adults, but it is unlikely that differences in reporting rates can explain the observed differences in STE.