Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter could help limit the spread of infectious diseases, a new study has found. According to researchers from the University of Waterloo and Yale University, such media platforms can optimize containment strategies by revealing social response patterns during outbreaks. Together with biological factors, these patterns may yield more accurate prediction models of higher complexity.

Published in the journal Science, the study investigated the relationship between social and biological contagions. From an epidemiological point of view, ideas and diseases are very similar, as they are both transmitted from one source across a vast, intricate network of new hosts. According to co-author Chris Bauch, a better understanding of the viral trajectory of social contagions like tweets and videos may eventually help health officials limit the spread of biological contagions like the flu.

"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," Bauch told reporters. "We can create models from this data that allows researchers to observe how social contagion networks interact with better-known biological contagion networks."

To investigate public response patterns, the Bauch and his colleagues looked at pediatric vaccine coverage, reactions to quarantine during the SARS outbreak, and other health issues accompanied by a pronounced social media response. The data suggested that during widely publicized outbreaks and epidemics, these patterns may be just as important as strain DNA, transmission vectors, drug resistance, and other biological factors. When implemented into predictive epidemiological models, these social media patterns fine-tune outcomes.

"Predictive modeling isn't perfect, but it can help gauge how people will respond to disease control measures," Bauch explained. "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."

Hopefully, the findings will assist the work of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other agencies tasked with monitoring and restricting the progression of communicable diseases.

Source: C. T. Bauch, A. P. Galvani. Social Factors in Epidemiology. Science, 2013; 342 (6154): 47 DOI.