The Social Aspects of Fighting Disease

YSPH professor contends that disease models increasingly need to harness social and behavioral factors to optimize public health.

When there is a disease outbreak, traditional vaccines and public health messages may no longer be enough to provide sufficient protection.

In an essay that appears today in the journal Science, Yale School of Public Health Professor Alison P. Galvani contends that social contagions, the beliefs or impressions that are quickly passed from person to person via social media, the influence of popular cultural figures or from other sources, pose a unique set of scientific and public health challenges.

Galvani and Chris T. Bauch of the University of Waterloo mention the recent example of the scare over whether the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine contributed to autism in some babies.

A widespread network of public concern or doubt about a vaccine’s safety or effectiveness results in some people foregoing treatment. This, in turn, increases the pool of people who are susceptible to the disease or diseases and can create the conditions for an outbreak.

Galvani and Bauch argue that such disease-behavior dynamics are increasingly important and need to be better understood—and harnessed—if epidemiologist are to offer treatment responses that effectively protect the public’s health. The paper cites a recent example in Israel of how effective such modeling can be.

“It was exciting to see some of these principles in action recently,” Galvani said.  Policy informed by mathematical models developed at Tel Aviv University lead to the rapid and effective extinguishing of the polio outbreak in Israel.”

Mathematical modeling that takes factors of social contagion and behavioral dynamics into account is increasingly being explored, with some interesting results for public health, the authors said. It is being used not only for vaccines, but also with the study of antibiotic resistance and social distancing, where people avoid contact with infected individuals. As part of this effort, disease modelers are now factoring insights from economists, sociologists and psychologists into their equations.

Predictive models that account for these variables could be used to develop optimal public health responses in the advent of a vaccine scare. As vaccines and drugs become more commonplace and accessible, the authors note, the component of human behavior has emerged as an increasingly important factor in determining the uptake of control measures.

This article was submitted by Denise L Meyer on October 4, 2013.

Related People

Alison P Galvani

Burnett and Stender Families Professor of Epidemiology (Microbial Diseases) and Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology