Social Networking: Friends Infecting Friends

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 @ 11:08 AM gHale

A virus can spread and cause huge ramifications, but a new application injected into the social networking site Facebook can serve as a better indicator of how infections spread among populations.

PiggyDemic allows users to “infect” their friends with a simulated virus or become infected themselves. The resulting patterns allow researchers to gather information on how a virus mutates, spreads through human interaction, and the number of people it infects, said Dr. Gal Almogy and Professor Nir Ben-Tal of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Tel Aviv University’s George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences.

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Currently, scientists use mathematical algorithms to determine which virus will spread and how, but this method has flaws. It assumes a virus has equal distribution across populations, but that is simply not the case, the researchers said.

In addition, patterns of social interaction also come into play. “HIV is concentrated in Africa; certain types of flu are widespread in North America and Asia,” Almogy said. “Adding the element of human interaction, and looking at the social networks we belong to, is critical for investigating viral interaction.”

Facebook is an ideal tool for such an undertaking, Almogy said. The social networking site’s digital interactions simulate in-person interactions. Viral infections, like the flu, are a social phenomena, he said.

Once added to a user’s Facebook account, PiggyDemic follows the user’s newsfeed to determine the people they interact with. Users are either “susceptible,” “immune” or “infected” with various simulated viruses, and can pass them on to their online contacts. Researchers then follow these interactions using network visualization software, and watch the links between users as the “viruses” pass on.

Accurate modeling of viral dynamics is critical for developing public health policy, Almogy said. There will be better use of vaccinations, medications, quarantine and anti-viral procedures if medical personnel are able to more accurately predict the course of infection.

More than a research tool, PiggyDemic is also a game (users try to infect as many of their friends as possible), a teaching tool (users make choices that help them live a healthy life), and potentially a method for high-resolution, real-time tracking of virus outbreaks.

“People who have this software can report if they are actually ill,” Almogy said. “If we know who their friends are and the sequence of the infecting virus, we can figure out which virus they have and how it passes from one person to another.” If the network is large enough, he said, they might be able to post warnings of possible outbreaks to Facebook networks.

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