Tel Aviv University scientists are looking to the social network community for help in tracking infectious diseases.
Dr. Gal Almogy and Prof. Nir Ben-Tal of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at TAU’s George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences have developed a Facebook application called PiggyDemic, which allows users to “infect” their friends with a simulated virus or become infected themselves. The researchers say this will allow them to gather information on how a virus mutates, spreads through human interaction, and the number of people it infects.
PiggyDemic is not just a research tool, though. Bearing a fun logo, PiggyDemic is also a game (users try to infect as many of their friends as possible), a teaching tool (users make choices that help them live a healthy life), and potentially a method for high-resolution, real-time tracking of virus outbreaks.
“People who have this software can report if they are actually ill,” says Dr. Almogy. “If we know who their friends are and the sequence of the infecting virus, we can figure out which virus they have and how it passes from one person to another.”
From SARS to Bird Flu, scientists use mathematical algorithms to determine which virus will spread and how, but this method has some flaws. It assumes that a virus has equal distribution across populations, but that is simply not the case, the researchers say. Patterns of social interaction must also be taken into account.
“HIV is concentrated in Africa; certain types of flu are widespread in North America and Asia,” explains Dr. Almogy. “Adding the element of human interaction, and looking at the social networks we belong to, is critical for investigating viral interaction.”
Facebook is an ideal tool for such an undertaking, says Dr. Almogy. The social networking site’s digital interactions simulate in-person interactions. Viral infections like the flu are a social phenomena, he explains.
According to Dr. Almogy, accurate modeling of viral dynamics is critical for developing public health policy. Issues such as the use of vaccinations, medications, quarantine and anti-viral procedures will be better informed if we are able to predict more accurately the course of infection.