Estimation Problems for Epidemiology


These problems are exercises in making estimates from very limited information. Sometimes, it will seem to you that you are just making up an answer, but that shouldn't really be the case.

A nice introduction is the book Guesstimation. (You can browse the book at

Other links:

Three General Strategies for Estimation

1. Break things into parts

Sometimes you can make an estimate of a quantity that appears at first glance to be completely unknown to you by breaking it down into parts. Examples:

2. Use Logarithmic Spacing

Don't start an estimate by guessing the first digit of a number. Instead, guess the scale of the number. Start with picking a unit, then pick a scale. It helps to think about scale logarithmically.

The following numbers are logarithmically spaced:

0.001, 0.01, 0.1, 1, 10, 100, 1000, 10000, 100000, 1000000 and so on.

Of course, this scale continues off to zero on the left and \( \infty \) on the right.

Some questions:

Don't be afraid to use non-standard units. Here's the car-weight problem revisited: First, pick a unit: a person. This is sensible because we put people into cars and so we have experience comparing people to cars. How many people would overload a car. A single person doesn't, but 100 people would be absurd. So, around 10 people. Now, how much does a person weight? Done.

Pinning down an answer to a factor of 10 or 100 is much better than nothing.

Example: How much does a jumbo jet airplane weigh? You may have a sense of how many people such a plane holds — about 400. Those 400 people, together with their bags, weigh about 100 kg each. Vehicles are generally heavier than their load — a car is about 10 times heavier, but an airplane should be more efficient since it has to fly. So let's guess that a plane is about three times as heavy as its load. Guestimate: 400 people times 100 kg/person times 3 = 120,000 kg. Just a guess, but it's a lot closer guess than you might have started with. (Check out the answer here.)

3. Know some basic quantitative facts

Every educated person should know the population of the earth, the population of some major countries, life spans, etc. You know typical birth rates (per woman, over a lifetime), volumes (a typical person weighs about 50 kg, and so has a volume of about 50 l), etc.

Grading Rubric:

In the spirit of an APGAR score:

Moodle link

Estimation Problem 0: Just a start.

This is a simple problem, so long as you understand that there is no exact answer:

To answer in your essay:

In answering this question or prevalence, you might think about how many people there are in the US, the incidence rate and the duration. You might be able to make an assumption/estimate/guesstimate of incidence rate and duration from your personal experience and that of your family and friends.

Make sure that you state your assumptions/estimates/guesstimates explicitly so that the reader can see how they figure into your ultimate answer.

Estimation Problem 1

Imagine that you are in charge of allocating resources to medical schools. (There is no such person in the US, which has a decentralized system of medical education. In other countries, this is not the case.)

To answer in your essay:

Moodle link

Obviously there is no exact answer to these questions. You should try to put together an estimates based on what you know about how physicians work and how much time patients spend with physicians, other duties for physicians, etc. Be explicit with your sub-estimates so that these can be discussed and refined.

Since the point of this exercise is to develop your estimation skills, rather than to direct actual public policy, don’t feel that you have to do detailed research to support your estimates. Rather, think of the exercise as a way to identify the questions you would want to answer in detail if you were going to make a serious attempt to inform public policy.

Estimation Problem 2

Dengue fever is a serious, mosquito-borne illness. In an attempt to reduce the incidence of dengue fever, scientists are experimenting with releasing genetically modified male mosquitos whose mating results in non-viable larvae. The hope is to reduce mosquito populations dramatically in areas where the modified males are released in large numbers. (See this article in the New Yorker magazine.)

Humans are the host of the dengue fever virus. A female mosquito who bits an infected human becomes infected, but suffers no symptoms. The virus reproduces in the saliva glands of the mosquito, which then can pass along the virus to another human through biting.

Suppose that, in the treatment areas, the active mosquito population is reduced by 75%.

To answer in your essay:

Estimation Problem 3

You have been asked to set up the system for vaccinating the people of Minnesota against H1N1. You will be provided with the vaccine in a form to be injected using a hypodermic needle. The shots will be administered by nurses who are already experienced. Your goal is to vaccinate everyone who wants to be in one week.

To answer in your essay:

Make sure to explain your estimate in sufficient detail so that the officials reading your request will be able to judge if your estimate is reasonable.

Estimation Problem 4

Assume that colds are transmitted by sneezes. How infectious is a sneeze? To be more definite, suppose there is a classroom of healthy people, but one person has a cold.

To answer in your essay:

Or, if you prefer, assume that colds are transmitted by handshakes. Calculate the probability of infection by handshake when a person with a cold meets a person.

Estimation Problem 5

What are five risky things that college students do in terms of excess mortality?

To answer in your essay:

Don't spend more than 30 minutes altogether. It helps if you pick a risk that you don't expect everyone else in the class to be reporting on.