June 2, 2009 By Blake Harris
When we think of pandemic scenarios, it's probably the larger cities where we expect a disaster scenario to play out. After all, with millions of people packed into apartment buildings, crammed on buses and trains and brushing past one another on crowded sidewalks, what could be worse for the spread of infectious diseases?
But a group of Kansas State University engineers is finding that a truly disastrous epidemic scenario could also take place in the wide-open spaces of the Great Plains. With funding from the National Science Foundation, they are using academic models to study the spread of diseases in rural areas. They are working to identify optimal strategies for the forecast and control of disease outbreaks in such areas.
"What are used as mitigation strategies in cities will not be so effective in rural areas," said Caterina Scoglio, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, who is leading the research project. "In cities, people have a lot of informal contact with one another but looser ties."
Working with Scoglio on the project are Todd Easton, associate professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering; Robert Kooij, adjunct associate professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Walter Schumm, professor of family studies and human services.
Scoglio says that during a disease outbreak, urban residents are less likely to interact with sick neighbors and therefore less likely to contract or spread a disease. On the other hand, Schumm found that 35 percent of rural residents would be willing to visit other people in the community during a major epidemic, citing the results of a rural survey recently conducted as part of the project.
"We found that person-to-person contact is most important," Easton said in a news release. "Having a population with two times as many interpersonal contacts is more dangerous than a disease that is twice as virulent. This shows that the government's ability to limit travel during an epidemic is very important."
Not only does their research show that rural residents may be more likely to maintain normal levels of social contact than urban residents, but the researchers said that the decreased access to hospitals and physicians also make rural areas especially vulnerable during an epidemic.
Their computer models suggest that vaccines be administered to people who have contact with the largest network of friends, family, co-workers and neighbors. Scoglio said that it would be equally important to vaccinate people who don't have many contacts themselves but who are a common link between two well-connected communities.
Additionally, the researchers don't see technology like cell phones and Web calling reducing person-to-person contact among rural residents during an epidemic in the way it would for urban residents. For one thing, Easton said, rural populations tend to be older and may not have adopted some technologies as rapidly. Also, high-speed Internet connections and cellular phone service can be limited in rural areas, encouraging more interpersonal interactions in a major epidemic event.
Photo by Swainboat. CC Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic