Epidemics, like today’s flu epidemic, have always spread through mankind’s social networks. The most socially connected people, of course, are the most likely to catch the disease.


But today, social networks are also helping us fight epidemics. Good health and preparedness for epidemics are spreading thanks to social networks.

To see what I mean, take a look at the infographic “How Social Networks Predict Epidemics,” prepared by MPLProgramsList.com, “Advocates for Public Health Student Education.” This webpage explains graphically how Google and Twitter, for example, are detecting and tracking epidemics.

The results? Twitter content, for one, “has predicted flu outbreaks 1-2 weeks ahead of the CDC’s surveillance average.” And Google tracks flu trends by graphing people’s online searches for, say, relief of their flu symptoms.

The infographic mentions other organizations that are leveraging these kinds of disease data, including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Global Public Health Intelligence Network, Healthmap.org, the mobile app “Outbreaks Near Me” and “Sickweather.”

Social Network Analysis (SNA) is thus providing us all with an Early-Warning system for disease outbreaks — the valuable opportunity to make preparations, including getting those shots that we might have procrastinated about.

The infographic quotes Dr. Taha Kass-Hout, Deputy Director for Information Science at the CDC, on what this new kind of SNA means for us: “We can’t turn the clock back. . . Given that the next SARS probably can travel at the speed of an airliner from continent to continent in a matter of hours, it just makes perfect sense to adapt the speed and flexibility of social networking to disease surveillance.”

As Activate Networks’ Scientific Founder Nicholas Christakis and his colleagues have demonstrated, social networks are powerful means not only for diffusing infection, as in the past, but also now for diffusing good health, diffusing innovation, and other new and very effective uses. And thanks to Christakis’s pioneering insight and research, we also, nowadays, have the tools to harness this power.

For further information on Christakis’ research, including the 2-week lead time, see our Blog of December 7th, below.

Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, is also Professor of Medicine, Sociology and Health Care Policy at Harvard University, and co-author with James Fowler, PhD, Activate Networks’ Advisory Board Member, of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

Image: Patrick Hoesly

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