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Infectious Diseases

10 January 2018

Could Facebook stop a disease outbreak?

Are social media just an unhealthy addiction, or could Facebook actually help save people in the case of a deadly epidemic? Researchers weigh in.

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Social media has been under scrutiny before for having a negative impact on one's health, whether it's making you feel more isolated, increasing depression or simply becoming an addiction.

But now it seems like social media platforms could be the saving grace in the case of a disease outbreak.

Easier to pinpoint sick individuals

Facebook accounts and telephone records can be used to pinpoint the best individuals to vaccinate to stop a disease outbreak in its tracks, researchers said.

Such people would be "central" in their social networks, and thus likelier to spread disease-causing germs from one group to another.

Assuming there is an outbreak, and not enough vaccines for every person in the world, immunising these well-connected individuals would remove social "bridges" by which germs can spread, experts wrote in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

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What the study entailed

The study, which tracked the digital and physical contacts of more than 500 university students, concluded that people who are central in their digital networks are also central in their real-life human networks.

"If you are a hub for your friends in the sense that you have many contacts via phone calls or on Facebook, making you a bridge between diverse communities, chances are high that you are also likely to be a bridge to connect those communities in case of an epidemic, such as influenza," study co-author Enys Mones of the Technical University of Denmark told AFP.

"By understanding the online contacts, we can find individuals who are such central members of the population and focus targeted counter-measures on them when there are limited resources for vaccination."

An easy, affordable method

Using computer modelling, the research then calculated that vaccinating these "central" individuals would be "almost as efficient as the most optimal (existing) vaccination strategies".

It was also cheaper, as digital activity is easy to trace.

The goal of vaccination is to reduce the size of the population at risk of infection. It achieves something called "herd immunity", whereby unvaccinated people are increasingly unlikely to come into contact with an infectious individual.

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