Watch out for infectious personalities!

We share so much with our friends – our joy, sadness and difficulties, and of course our health problems. Knowing that, researchers wanted to test how useful social networking sites could be in detecting contagious disease outbreaks.

We share so much with our friends – our joy, sadness and difficulties, and of course our health problems. Knowing that, researchers wanted to test how useful social networking sites could be in detecting contagious disease outbreaks.

Chances are your friends are more popular than you are. Why is that? Imagine a big party with about a hundred guests in attendance. Statistically speaking, the reason the average guest is likely to know the hostess is because she has so many friends. This phenomenon is called the “friendship paradox,” since the friends of any random person are likely to be more central to the social web than the initial individual.

Researchers believe this paradox could be made to work as an early warning system to detect outbreaks of contagious diseases. If it proves reliable, this method could make it possible to spot outbreaks weeks earlier than with current surveillance methods.

A team of researchers put this theory to the test last fall by monitoring a group of university students and the spread of the flu. They asked 319 students to nominate up to three friends. As predicted by the friendship paradox, individuals in the second group (made up of 425 students) were more popular and central in social connections at the university than the first group of students. The students were asked to answer a twice-weekly health survey from September to December. The findings showed that the infection rate peaked two weeks earlier among the more “popular” group than in the initial group, which had been randomly selected.

Monitoring social media sites could therefore be added to traditional epidemic tracking methods in an attempt to better detect the evolution of contagious diseases such as the flu. While interesting, none of these tools protect us against contagion. The best solutions are still proper hygiene and vaccination… and why not also temporarily avoid seeing friends when they announce on their social networking site that they are feeling under the weather?

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