Could Facebook friends help contain infectious diseases?

A team led by researchers at Kansas State University is studying whether social media could be an effective way to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

The work builds on their previous research, published at Scientific Reports, which found that growing diseases can be contained if people quickly adopt appropriate preventive behavior. Now they're looking at how social media could play a role.

The researchers have been collecting data from college students about how they use social media and what steps they take to prevent illness. The majority said they get most of their information from Facebook and a few other social media sites, and that they'd be willing to take steps such as washing their hands more frequently or getting a flu shot if asked to do so.

The study has since focused on who would be the most effective source of those recommendations.

"One thing we're discussing is whether it would be better to receive recommendations or advice from someone people know and trust personally, like a friend or the university president, or from someone like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is an authority on the subject, but has no personal connection to most people. It may be something where a best friend has more influence than a public health official," researcher Caterina Scoglio, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and expert in complex network modeling, says in an announcement.

The students, however, said they'd be unwilling to restrict contact with family and friends to prevent illness, a measure that could be among the most effective deterrents.

Lead author Faryad Sahneh, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering who is modeling the spread of epidemics, will speak in December at the 51st Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Conference on Decision and Control on how not only vaccinating key people, but also effectively disseminating health information could be important to curbing disease.

This isn't the first effort to harness the Internet to fight infectious outbreaks. 

As FierceHealthIT reported yesterday, research from Columbia University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research on a prediction model that combines Google Flu Trends and weather forecasting techniques to predict flu outbreaks up to seven weeks before they happen.

And researchers from the University of Rochester in New York have created a flu outbreak prediction model using Twitter, although it provides a lead time of just eight days.

In August, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services awarded $48.8 million in grants for states and cities to improve reporting and monitoring of infectious diseases.

To learn more: 
- here's the announcement
- read the previous research

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