Friday, April 11, 2008

“Houston: We have contact!” (Boy, do we ever)

How many people do you come into close contact with each day? More than you may think, which may have an impact on whether you pick up the latest cold or spread it to your friends and family.

Whether it is influenza or SARS, scientists in Europe believe studying social contact patterns can be used to better understand the spread of infectious diseases, according to a study in PLoS Medicine.

To test their premise, researchers followed 7,300 European volunteers who recorded physical and other contacts for a day. The study showed that people had an average of about 13 contacts per day.

Children and teens had the greatest number of contacts, especially within their own age groups. Kids ages 5 to 9 averaged almost 15 contacts a day, while those ages 10 to 14 averaged 18 contacts, and teens ages 15 to 19 had about 17. In contrast, seniors ages 70 and older only had about seven contacts a day. Such patterns may explain why schoolchildren are coughing and sneezing so often and could have implications for kids and teens, "who are expected to suffer the highest incidence during the initial epidemic phase," the researchers wrote.

Other findings in the study showed that daily contacts or those lasting more than an hour tended to be physical. Contacts at home, school or play were more likely to be physical than contacts at the workplace or while traveling.

Researchers plan to use the study results to create mathematical models to figure out how infectious diseases can be controlled during an outbreak. But for you and me, it means that if there is an epidemic, the best plan may be to keep the family (and especially the kids and teens) at home.

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