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Social Scientist Says Social Networks Can Predict The Spread Of The Flu

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Aired 9/15/10

A UCSD professor says monitoring people with lots of friends may be the best way to control flu outbreaks.

— A UCSD professor says monitoring people with lots of friends may be the best way to control flu outbreaks.

Social scientist James Fowler has done many studies that show behaviors are socially contagious. Now he says a real contagion, influenza, also spreads though social networks in predictable ways. That insight could help efforts to protect public health. Fowler's research shows that people with lots of friends typically get the flu two weeks before your average person does. And if you can track the health of people in the center of social networks, you can predict where flu outbreaks will occur.

"And so the virtue here isn't so much saying, OK people at the center are more likely to get the flu," said Fowler, "because we already know that. People at the center are more likely to get anything that spreads in the social network. The real innovation here is we can use those people as bellwethers."

Fowler said he was able to identify people at the center of social networks by asking randomly-selected people to name a friend. People typically named people who were more socially connected and had more friends than they did. He said if health officials can identify these well-connected "friends," they can use that information to decide where to start vaccination campaigns.

"If you follow the 'friends' you will be able to tell where the flu will break out first. So if there is a shortage of vaccine, you can decide where the vaccine should go first," said Fowler.

James Fowler's new research is published in the journal Plos One. His research into social networks is done in partnership with Nicholas Christakis, a professor of medical sociology at Harvard University.

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