INFECTIOUS POPULARITY: Are Social Networks the New Frontier for Disease Detection?

Looks like being friends the popular kids is risky business.

Social butterflies moving from one social group to another may lead to lots of  ‘Likes’ but could help distribute diseases in your social circles.

I’ve highlighted a few recent examples of the use of social network theory in improving our wildlife and human infection surveillance.


Scientists at the University of Exeter, Cornwall, UK, used social network analyses to investigate contact patterns of group-living European badgers (Meles meles) which are an important wildlife reservoir of bovine tuberculosis (TB). Their work was recently published in Current Biology, listed here.

The research team found that TB test-positive badgers were socially isolated from their own groups but were more important for flow, potentially of infection, between social groups.

PowerPoint Presentation

The distinctive social position of infected badgers may help explain how social stability mitigates, and social perturbation increases, the spread of infection in badgers.


Similarly, recent work by Stan Gehrt’s group at the University of Illinois used proximity detecting collars and social network metrics to calculate the degree of social connectivity in an urban raccoon population for purposes of estimating potential pathogen spread.

They demonstrated that raccoon social association networks were highly connected, and all individuals were connected to one large social network. While short-term contacts among individuals is likely to have important implications for the transmission of rabies and other pathogens.


Using these kinds baseline analyses, research teams can think about contacts between individuals based on their social hierarchy. It’s been done with birds, multiple primate species, and even fruit flies to monitor population health and social determinants of infection.


On the human end of things, social media, such as Facebook, have been used for human disease surveillance. Brownstein and colleagues at Harvard Medical School have developed interactive tools (see HealthMap here) that source from social media outlets to track symptoms of infection (See Digital Disease paper here). Geospatial locators map and monitor these aggregated symptoms to provide up-to-date spatio-temporal surveillance measures of multiple diseases.

Collectively, these sources provide a view of global health that is fundamentally different from that yielded by the disease reporting of the traditional public health infrastructure.


There is much promise in the future developments of social networks for digital media, advertising, and global commerce.  But digital disease detection and wild social networks in nature can boost our understanding and prevention of significant epidemics. A review based on social media for disease surveillance can be found here.

Oh ya, and you should probs ‘Share’ and ‘Like’ the crap out of this post.  Do your part for public health! 😉

-A. Watts


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