Could Tweets from friends prevent spread of flu?

Could a Tweet or a Facebook post help prevent illness as well as regular hand-washing or getting a flu shot?

No one’s suggesting that social media can provide immunity from infectious diseases. But some researchers believe the power of posts and Tweets could encourage other ways to prevent illness.

“Infectious diseases are a serious problem and historically have been a major cause of death,” said Faryad Sahneh, a doctoral candidate in electrical engineering at Kansas State University. “During the last decades there has been a huge advancement in medication and vaccination, which has helped save many peoples’ lives. But now there also has been a revolution in communication and information technology that we think could be used to develop an even more robust preventative society against infectious diseases.”

Sahneh is working with other researchers at Kansas State and elsewhere to model the spread of epidemics in an effort to reduce them. By bringing together multiple disciplines, the team hopes to develop more comprehensive and accurate models for how people behave.

Among the things they’ve found so far: a majority of the college-age students they’ve asked get their information predominantly from Facebook, along with a few other social media sites. And most of them said that, if someone on one of those sites asked them to wash their hands more, take vitamins or get a flu shot, they would do so.

This led to the question of who would be the most effective or influential person to offer such suggestions online.

“One thing we’re discussing is whether it would be better to receive recommendations or advice from someone people know and trust personally, like a friend or the university president, or from someone like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is an authority on the subject but has no personal connection to most people,” said Caterina Scoglio, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Kansas State. “It may be something where a best friend has more influence than a public health official.”

According to the research team’s first report, a growing infection can be contained if individuals quickly adopt the appropriate preventative behavior.

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