The influenza network

Finally, some good news arrives for the socially awkward. A new study published in the journal PLoS One, has found that those who have a wider social network may catch the flu sooner than others. The researchers believe that the study’s findings can enhance strategies for disease survelliance, as well as improve control of infectious diseases.

The study consisted of 319 randomly chosen Harvard undergraduate students. As explained in the study’s news release, those students were asked to name two or three friends, which created a list of 425 additional students (some were named more than once). The research was based off of the “friendship paradox” which states that when an individual names a friend, on average that friend will have a larger social network than the individual who named them. Both groups of students were monitored throughout the 2009 flu season.

Approximately one-third of the students caught the flu based on self-reported data, as well as reports from Harvard University Health Services. It was found that the group of 425 friends came down with the flu an average of 14 days sooner than the random control group, CNN reports. The researchers also found that the flu epidemic peaked in the “friends” group 46 days before it peaked in the general Harvard student population.

Lead study author Nicholas Christakis, a professor at Harvard Medical School, says in the study’s news release:

“We think this may have significant implications for public health… Public health officials often track epidemics by following random samples of people or monitoring people after they get sick. But that approach only provides a snapshot of what’s currently happening. By simply asking members of the random group to name friends, and then tracking and comparing both groups, we can predict epidemics before they strike the population at large. This would allow an earlier, more vigorous, and more effective response.”

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