Student-worn sensors could lead to flu-prevention strategies

About 450 Pittsburgh-area students are wearing electronic sensors this week in a quest to find out how they interact and how influenza spreads among children.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh plan to use that information about child-to-child interactions to develop strategies for stopping flu outbreaks, according to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The beeper-sized sensors, called motes, were distributed Monday to elementary and middle-school students in Washington County, Pa., and were to be collected at the end of the day today, according to the report. The motes detect and record any close encounters among children, with the data used to build models of daily interactions throughout the day.

Researchers from the university's Graduate School of Health are looking for ways to prevent the rapid spread of another H1N1-type virus, which spread rapidly among school-age children in 2009-2010 rather than the older population typically more susceptible, the newspaper reported. Because the virus was a unique mutation, no vaccine existed, leaving public-health authorities scrambling for other ways to prevent transmission.

Using data collected from the students, researchers hope to determine what actions can limit the spread of disease, according to the report, such as restricting movement between classes or isolating sick children.

This is the second year of the Social Mixing And Respiratory Transmission in Schools (SMART) program, funded by a $700,000 grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reports the Post-Gazette.

Last year's analysis showed that a typical student interacts with 109 cohorts during the school day, most of them at lunchtime, with high-school students interacting more than younger students, according to the article. This year's study moves the study beyond the schoolyard.

A similar sensor-based study at a Palo Alto, Calif., high school in January 2010, at the height of the H1N1 outbreak, found two people passed within 10 feet of each other more than 760,000 times. In that case, teachers and staff joined students in wearing the sensors.

To learn more:
- here's the Post-Gazette article


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