Social media can be a major asset for preventing infectious diseases from spreading by informing the public of outbreaks, according to researchers from Kansas State University.

A 2010 study claimed that people are increasingly dependent on social media to seek help during disasters, and a study published in October of this year said that social networking sites can help reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

The experts who conducted the new study looked at whether posts placed online by public figures can have a large impact on awareness of infectious disease and boost knowledge of the benefits of flu shots, washing of hands, or sneezing into elbows for preventing the spread of illnesses.

Faryad Sahneh, Kansas State University doctoral candidate in electrical engineering who is modeling the spread of epidemics in order to try to lower the incidence, commented:

“Infectious diseases are a serious problem and historically have been a major cause of death. During the last decade there has been a huge advancement in medication and vaccination, which has helped save many people’s lives. But now there also has been a revolution in communication and information technology that we think could be used to develop an even more robust preventative society against infectious disease.”

Caterina Scoglio, associate professor of electrical computer engineering and an expert in complex network modeling, who worked with Sahneh during the study, as well as many other researchers from various places, said that having experts who specialize in a wide variety of areas assists the team in developing more precise models which explain practical human behavior.

Gary Brase, associate professor of psychology, whose main focus is how people make decisions, and a collaborator of the study gathered data by questioning college students about social media and also asked which steps the young adults were taking in order to protect themselves against illnesses.

Most of the participants surveyed said that the majority of the information they receive regarding illness and preventive measures is via Facebook and other social media websites. Also, the subjects said that they would not be opposed to taking more preventive measures, such as hand washing, taking vitamins, or getting a flu shot if they were asked to do so.

Brase commented:

“However, we also saw that restricting contact with family and friends is something that people are not willing to do. If you think about how diseases are spread, one of the best things you can do is to not interact with other people. But we’ve seen that this is one thing that people are not very excited about doing.”

In addition to gathering data about human behavior, the researchers also determined which groups of people should be targeted with social media. According to Scoglio, an important group to reach out to is teachers and public officials because they often socialize with many people in the public. If these people are infected with a disease, they can spread it to many others, considering the number of people they come in contact with on a daily basis. Targeting this group through social media can reduce the chances of spreading these infections.

Sahneh continued:

“If 30 people in that group get a flu vaccine, they will have less probability of getting the flu. But, by being vaccinated, it’s also benefiting all who come into contact with those 30 people because there is now a reduced chance of the flu being transmitted by those 30 individuals. So reaching that group is pretty important.”

The experts are also looking into who may be the best people to announce social media messages that can help reach maximum exposure of important news.

“One thing we’re discussing is whether it would be better to receive recommendations or advice from someone people know and trust personally, like a friend or the university president, or from someone like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is an authority on the subject but has no personal connection to most people. It may be something where a best friend has more influence than a public health official,” concluded Scoglio.

Written by Christine Kearney