Current methods for the detection of contagious outbreaks give contemporaneous information about the course of an epidemic at best. It is known that individuals near the center of a social network are likely to be infected sooner during the course of an outbreak, on average, than those at the periphery.
Unfortunately, mapping a whole network to identify central individuals who might be monitored for infection is typically very difficult. The authors propose an alternative strategy that does not require ascertainment of global network structure, namely, simply monitoring the friends of randomly selected individuals. Such individuals are known to be more central.
To evaluate whether such a friend group could indeed provide early detection, the authors studied a flu outbreak at Harvard College in late 2009 with the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Pioneer Team.
They followed 744 students who were either members of a group of randomly chosen individuals or a group of their friends. Based on clinical diagnoses, the progression of the epidemic in the friend group occurred 13.9 days (95% C.I. 9.9–16.6) in advance of the randomly chosen group (i.e., the population as a whole). The friend group also showed a significant lead time (p,0.05) on day 16 of the epidemic, a full 46 days before the peak in daily incidence in the population as a whole.
This sensor method could provide significant additional time to react to epidemics in small or large populations under surveillance. The amount of lead time will depend on features of the outbreak and the network at hand. The method could in principle be generalized to other biological, psychological, informational, or behavioral contagions that spread in networks.