A team from Imperial College London used computer models to analyse flu reduction policies.
Waiting a few weeks could reduce the overall cost of the response but would reach the same goals for containing spread of the virus, they found.
Governments often opt to close public institutions such as schools to limit outbreaks. But the financial and societal cost of these measures means they must be implemented for as short a time as possible.
Researchers used mathematical models to simulate different reactions to a flu outbreak. The tool evaluated short-term action against goals such as reducing peak demand for health services.
Results showed that, compared to an instant response, policies that started a few weeks into the epidemic were almost as effective at containing both the size of the epidemic and the peak number of cases.
Co-author Deirdre Hollingsworth of Imperial College London said it was often assumed governments need to deploy all mitigation options immediately.
‘But we found that waiting a few weeks is as effective at achieving key public health aims as starting interventions immediately,’ she said.
‘If you take into account the impact that those policies will have on society, it might be better to hold back at the start.’