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Facebook app models how viruses spread through human interaction

In an effort to better understand how infections spread among populations, Tel Aviv University researchers have designed a Facebook application to study the impact of social interaction on how a virus mutates and travels from person to person.

The app, called PiggyDemic, follows a user's newsfeed to determine the people they interact with and identifies friends as either "susceptible," "immune" or "infected" with various simulated viruses. Once infected, users can then pass the bug onto their online contacts. Researchers developed the tool to improve upon conventional epidemic simulation software, which commonly uses mathematical algorithms to predict how viruses will spread. According to a university release, the app has already provided some interesting insights:

Flu's peak period, winter, is usually attributed to environmental conditions. But the researchers' findings suggest there are other forces at work.

PiggyDemic's viruses are not explicitly programmed to have a seasonal pattern, and yet like the real-life flu, they also display recurrent peaks of infection. Though researchers are not yet certain what drives these periodic peaks in the PiggyDemic eco-system, they indicate that a simple viral strategy superimposed on the basic structure of human society has a strong tendency to display periodic bursts of viral activity regardless of environmental conditions.

Researchers hope additional findings from the Facebook app will help public health officials in evaluating and responding to future epidemics.

Previously: Mining Twitter data to track public health trends, Following Google Flu Trends, researchers use queries to track MRSA, Modeling the spread of H1N1 flu and Department of Energy lab develops new software for evaluating and responding to pandemics
Photo by William Brawley

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