Wearing sensors to see how diseases spread

Researchers gave a bunch of high school students sensors to wear around to track the spread of disease.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

I am sandwiched in the middle of a Virgin America flight. The only thing worse about sitting in the middle seat is having the guy next to me constantly sneeze and cough.

Perhaps this is why one researcher's words stuck out today:

"Even when people aren't talking, they might be sneezing and coughing in each other's direction, bumping into each other, and passing around pathogens."

Those were the words Marcel Salathé, a biologist at Penn State University.

The Penn State researchers developed a new tool to keep track of the number of times disease can spread through contact events. The researchers tracked 788 high school students and kept tabs on who they came into contact with.

The scientists gave the volunteers a small sensor called motes to wear around with them. These motes were given their own tracking number. That way, when the people came into contact with other people with motes, the sensor recorded who was near-by. It records it in 20-second intervals.

The researchers reasoned even when you aren’t talking, you can catch a bad bug if that person sneezes or coughs near you. It’s not like you can remember everyone who passes you. The motes can detect if the person came close enough to spread the bug to you.

"If person A has contact with person B, and person B has contact with person C, chances are that persons A and C also have contact with each other," Salathé said in statement. "Real data illustrating these triangles provide just one more piece of information to help us track how a disease actually spreads."

The contact events aren’t completely random. There are more like closed triangles. However, individuals didn't really stick out. For the most part, all the volunteers in the study tended to have a good number of person-to-person interactions throughout the day.

The problem with previous studies of the spread of disease has been bogged down with a lack of data. This Penn State research gives some clues about how infectious disease spreads.

After counting each mote interaction, the researchers figured that the total number of events was 762,868. Now, those are pretty good odds. The more contact, the better chance of infection.

Surprisingly, the researchers didn't find evidence of the super spreader - the idea that some people are more likely make their friends sick if they are more connected.

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