Researchers study human dynamics to track bird flu

September / October 2013 | Volume 12, Issue 5

Human social networks may hold the key to identifying how bird flu spreads. A team of Fogarty-funded researchers is studying the dynamics among people who spend time on farms and in poultry markets to see if they can find a way to determine how to target treatment when the next pandemic strain emerges.

Most models of contagion assume people in a group, like a town or a live-bird market, mix equally, but that's not usually the case. People tend to interact only with a small group that they know. Some people, however, serve as bridges connecting otherwise separate subgroups. These bridges may be the best targets for medical interventions like vaccinations or antiviral treatment.

"Flu is a highly changeable virus. It behooves us to understand the evolution of these viruses and how they move into people," observed Dr. Stephen Luby of Stanford's Center for Innovation in Global Health. Understanding how flu spreads in hot zones, among people who have frequent contact with birds, which are a regular source of new flu strains, could provide critical information about whom to target for treatment when the next pandemic strain emerges.

With a one-year seed grant from Fogarty, the scientists have begun studying these interactions among people who work in poultry farms or markets in Bangladesh. The team hopes to expand the study to other countries where the highly pathogenic strain of avian flu circulates. Researchers from University of California, Los Angeles, University of Oklahoma, International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh and the nonprofit organization EcoHealth Alliance also are collaborating on this project.

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