Researchers at the Universities of Liverpool and Warwick have shown that children in the UK have the highest number and longest duration of social contact, making them most at-risk for catching and transmitting infection.
The team have, for the first time, mapped the daily contact networks of thousands of individuals to shed light on which groups may be at highest risk of contracting and spreading respiratory diseases.
Number and duration of social contacts
Scientists surveyed more than 5,000 UK residents to collect information on the types of social contact likely to lead to the transmission of respiratory infections. Understanding the number and duration of social contacts allows the complex interactions of the UK population to be analysed mathematically in the event of an outbreak.
Among adults, those working in schools, in the health sector and in client-facing service jobs such as shop workers or commercial roles had among the highest number of social contacts. Students, unemployed people and retired people had among the lowest levels of social contacts.
According to the data collected, during a working day a teacher sees on average 62.1 different people, whereas a retired person only sees around 19.3. The researchers also found that sociability tends to decline as people get older, with school-age children having the most social contact hours and people of retirement age having the fewest.
However there is a noticeable rebound in social contact hours in people aged between 35 and 45, which the researchers suggest may be down to ‘school-gate’ contacts among parents with school-age children.
Dr Jonathan Read, from the University’s Institute of Infection and Global Health, said: “This is the first study to get a really good picture of exactly how few or how many social contacts are made by people in Great Britain during a single day.
“We’ve been able to capture information about people who meet a lot of other people or who have long contact duration; people that may contribute disproportionately to the spread of new infectious disease.
“We hope that these findings will lead to improved models of social mixing and infectious disease spread, and better, more precise predictions of future epidemics.”
Target epidemic control measures
Dr Leon Danon, from the Mathematics Institute at the University of Warwick, added: “People working as teachers or health professionals are no doubt already aware that they have higher risks of picking up bugs like colds and flu.
“But before this study there was very little data mapping out the contact patterns humans have in their daily life.
“By quantifying those social interactions, we can better predict the risks of contracting and spreading infections and ultimately better target epidemic control measures in the case of pandemic flu for example.”
The study, Social encounter networks: characterising Great Britain, was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
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