A mathematical modelist from the University of Texas at Austin is using Facebook to track disease spread and to measure how individuals perceive health threats and health challenges. The following questions were asked on a Facebook group to measure public responses to the H5N1 outbreak:
“When did you first learn about the swine flu outbreak?"
"Have you searched the Internet for additional information on the swine flu outbreak?"
"If a vaccine for swine flu became available, would you want to be vaccinated?"
These three questions appeared on Facebook two days after the panic hit regarding the swine flu. The principal investigators involved in this model were part of the of the “National Institutes of Health research program called the Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study (MIDAS) that develops computational models of how infectious diseases emerge, spread and can be contained. The results can help public health officials plan for and perhaps even prevent contagious outbreaks.”
“Key to the researchers’ MIDAS modeling project is surveying people on how they perceive health risks. The researchers will use this information to build a dynamic model that simulates how changes in decision-making influence patterns of disease spread. The model will help them and others identify the strategies that improve adherence to interventions and reduce the spread of disease.”
One of the interesting things regarding this study was how the researchers were planning on using the results: “the group is interested in tracking how people’s answers change as public health officials issue new information or guidance about H1N1. The differences could reflect what happens to people’s perceptions, behaviors and choices as a disease outbreak evolves. Incorporating this information will truly advance the field of disease modeling.”
Disease modeling, while having serious limitations, is being used in interesting and new ways- measuring how media changes public perception and perhaps even affecting behavioral changes for community members.