Facebook and Twitter may yield clues to preventing the spread of disease

Facebook and Twitter could provide vital clues to control infectious diseases by using mathematical models to understand how we respond socially to biological contagions.

Cold and flu season prompts society to find ways to prevent the spread of disease though measures like vaccination all the way through to covering our mouths when we cough and staying in bed. These social responses are much more difficult to predict than the way biological contagion will evolve, but new methods are being developed to do just that.

Published this week in Science, Chris Bauch, a Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Waterloo, and co-author Alison Galvani from Yale University, review social factors in epidemiology. They suggest that the biological spread of diseases is intertwined with how society responds to those contagions.

"Social media and other data sources can be tapped for insights into how people will react when faced with a new disease control measure or the threat of infectious disease," said Professor Bauch. "We can create models from this data that allows researchers to observe how social contagion networks interact with better-known biological contagion networks."

Researchers found that—like disease—ideas, sentiments and information can also be contagious. They looked at examples such as pediatric vaccine coverage, public health communications aimed at reducing the spread of infection and acceptance of quarantine during the SARS outbreak.

"Predictive modelling isn't perfect, but it can help gauge how people will respond to measures," said Professor Bauch, who works with epidemiologists and population health researchers. "All sorts of variables can effect something as complex as the spread of disease. This is why it's important to bring a variety of perspectives into play, not just the biological considerations."

Bauch will continue to study the intersection of theory and data in order to build better predictive models. Understanding how networks and biological contagion networks interact with one another can help officials prepare to save lives in the case of future disease outbreaks.

More information: "Social Factors in Epidemiology," by C.T. Bauch, Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1244492

Related Stories

Controlling contagion by restricting mobility

Jul 30, 2013

In an epidemic or a bioterrorist attack, the response of government officials could range from a drastic restriction of mobility—imposed isolation or total lockdown of a city—to moderate travel restrictions in some areas ...

Recommended for you

Nigeria confirms two new Ebola cases

5 hours ago

Two new cases of Ebola have emerged in Nigeria and, in an alarming development, they are outside the group of caregivers who treated an airline passenger who arrived with Ebola and died, Health Minister Onyebuchi ...

Senegal closes border as UN warns on Ebola flare-up

10 hours ago

Senegal has become the latest country to seal its border with a west African neighbour to ward off the deadly Ebola virus, as the new UN pointman on the epidemic said preparations must be made for a possible flare-up of the ...

Climate change could see dengue fever come to Europe

10 hours ago

Dengue fever could make headway in popular European holiday destinations if climate change continues on its predicted trajectory, according to research published in open access journal BMC Public Health.

American Ebola doc: 'I am thrilled to be alive'

18 hours ago

Calling it a "miraculous day," an American doctor infected with Ebola left his isolation unit and warmly hugged his doctors and nurses on Thursday, showing the world that he poses no public health threat ...

User comments