Groups of friends in social networks can predict the spread of infectious disease

Your popularity might affect your risk of getting sick. Scientists tap social networks as a new way to monitor disease and control infectious disease.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

While Google searches can reveal the spread of the flu, scientists are claiming that popularity in social networks can too.

Tracking groups of friends might help experts predict the next flu outbreak.

Say people at a party were asked to name a friend. They'd most likely name the host instead of the loner standing in the corner.

That's just how it is. Based on the friendship paradox, your friends are probably more popular than you.

As it turns out, the friendship paradox might be a useful way of predicting epidemics. A team of scientists at Harvard University and the University of California, San Diego, are uncovering the spread of infectious diseases by examining social networks.

The researchers mapped the spread of the flu outbreak in 744 students. Look at the picture above. You can see that the infected people are red and their friends are yellow.

In the study, 319 Harvard students mentioned 425 friends. The named friends actually got the flu two weeks before the initial 319 group and 46 days before the outbreak really took off.

"If you want a crystal ball for finding out which parts of the country are going to get the flu first, then this may be the most effective method we have now," UCSD's professor James Fowler said in a statement. "Currently used methods are based on statistics that lag the real world -- or, at best, are contemporaneous with it. We show a way you can get ahead of an epidemic of flu, or potentially anything else that spreads in networks."

What's interesting about this is that it can be used for more things than just the flu outbreak. Imagine if you can predict fashion trends or map the spread of viral ideas through social networks.

Photo: University of California - San Diego

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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