PhD scholarship on mathematical modelling of pertussis dynamics and impact in Aotearoa New Zealand

Pertussis (also known as whooping cough) is a highly infectious disease that can be particularly severe in infants and young children. Despite the availability of vaccines against pertussis, epidemics typically occur once every 3-5 years and have resulted in at least 11 infant deaths over the past 21 years. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a disruption of pertussis disease, vaccination coverage, boosting of existing immunity, and decreased health access for vulnerable populations. As of March 2023, a third of infants under six-months are not appropriately immunised against pertussis. For Māori infants, more than half are at risk. There are also documented inequities in maternal pertussis vaccination coverage.

Aotearoa New Zealand has unique data on notified cases of pertussis, stratified by age, ethnicity, and deprivation. Pertussis cases are notified via EpiSurv, the national notifiable diseases reporting system held and can be linked to other healthcare datasets using NHI number. Linked notification, hospitalisation and healthcare data for pertussis are available from 2008.

This project will investigate some key questions about transmission of pertussis and its health impact:

  • What are the key factors driving the length of time between successive epidemics?
  • How will the epidemic cycle respond to changes in contact rates and transmission of endemic disease that occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic?
  • What will the consequences of declining childhood immunisation and poor uptake of maternal and adult doses be in terms of hospitalisations and deaths?
  • How will these impacts be distributed across age groups, and across different demographic groups such as Māori, Pacific People and those living with high levels of socioeconomic deprivation?

To help address these questions, this project will develop a mathematical model for pertussis transmission in Aotearoa New Zealand’s population based on known epidemiological and demographic mechanisms. This model will be fitted to time-dependent data on notified cases, hospital admissions and vaccine coverage.


The successful candidate will hold, or expect to complete soon, an Honours or Masters level qualification that includes advanced-level study of mathematics, statistics, or a closely related subject. A strong interest in infectious disease epidemiology is essential but no formal prior knowledge is required. The scholarship is open to domestic and international students.

Supervisory team and location

The successful candidate will be jointly supervised by Dr Oliver Maclaren, Professor Michael Plank and other experts specialising in the epidemiology of pertussis in Aotearoa New Zealand. The successful candidate will enrol as a PhD student at either the University of Auckland or the University of Canterbury.


Informal enquiries are welcome by email:

Financial details

  • Full tuition fees for three years.
  • Stipend of NZ$35,000 per year (tax free) for a maximum of three years.
  • Funded by the Prime Minister’s Science Prize fund.

Start date

Before 30 June 2024

How to apply

Send an email expressing your interest, along with a CV, academic record, and list of three potential referees to Michael Plank at michael.plank@canterbury.ac.nz or Oliver Maclaren at oliver.maclaren@auckland.ac.nz.

Due date

Applications will be considered until the position is filled.