Toronto: Facebook and Twitter could provide vital clues to control infectious diseases by using mathematical models to understand how we respond socially to biological contagions, scientists say.
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, said researchers.
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.
Chris Bauch, a Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Waterloo, and co-author Alison Galvani from Yale University, reviewed social factors in epidemiology.
They suggested 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 Bauch.
"We can create models from this data that allows researchers to observe how social contagion networks interact with better-known biological contagion networks," Bauch added.
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 disease control measures," said Bauch.
"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," said Bauch.
The study was published in the journal Science.