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The Germ Stops Here

A large group of everyday people using surgical masks to block their noses and mouths

Photo: iStockphoto

By John Toon

A little empathy can go a long way toward ending infectious disease outbreaks, report researchers who used a networked variation of game theory to study how individual behavior during a simulated influenza outbreak affects the progress of the disease.

The study pitted the self-interests of susceptible individuals against those of infected persons and found that only if sick persons took precautions to avoid infecting others could the illness be eradicated. Healthy people attempting to protect themselves couldn’t, by themselves, stop the disease from spreading.

“We wanted to understand disease dynamics from an individual’s perspective,” said Ceyhun Eksin, a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Joshua S. Weitz, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Biological Sciences. “In particular, we wanted to know what role individual behavior plays in disease spread and how behavior might affect forecasting and consequences when there is an outbreak.”

The research, reported in the journal Scientific Reports, was sponsored by the U.S. Army Research Office. The work used mathematical models that took into account how infectious diseases spread and the effects of measures taken to control them.

Public health initiatives against seasonal diseases like influenza tend to initially focus on immunization programs, which move individuals out of the “susceptible” category. Once an outbreak begins, health campaigns focus on encouraging susceptible persons to take precautions such as handwashing and avoiding infected people.

The success of those measures may depend on individual perceptions of how great the risk of infection might be, Eksin noted. The more awareness individuals have of infected persons around them, the more likely they are to protect themselves. Perception can also affect the empathetic behavior of infected individuals, who may be more likely to stay home from work or cover their cough if they believe their presence could infect a significant number of ­people.

Related: Empathy from the Sick May be Critical to Halting Disease Outbreaks, March 15, 2017

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