Scientists to calculate the speed with which disease can spread

The speed with which killer diseases such as the swine flu in Mexico could spread through the British population is being investigated by scientists at universities in Liverpool and Warwick.

In light of the outbreak in Mexico and the threat of a pandemic, it’s essential that Government and UK health authorities understand the speed with which these diseases could spread in the UK.

Britain leads the world in research into infectious diseases and two of the world’s leading authorities are carrying out the survey, which involves answering a questionnaire on the Internet. Also, 100,000 printed questionnaires are being posted in the next few days to schools and the public.

Recipients are asked how many people they came into contact with on a specific day – and how many of those they actually touched, giving details about when and where the contacts occurred.

Leading figures such as Professor Stephen Hawking, record-breaking runner David Moorcroft and television historian and writer Adam Hart-Davis are appealing for as many people as possible to complete the survey – and for as many days as possible.

The project is being funded by the Medical Research Council and spearheaded by Professor Matthew Keeling, a government advisor and mathematical biologist at the University of Warwick who is a specialist in human and livestock diseases, and Dr Jonathan Read from the University of Liverpool, who is researching the transmission and evolution of infectious diseases.

“We need to know the patterns of social interactions to enable us to better predict and control the spread of infections – such as pandemic flu,” said Professor Keeling. “There’s a lot known about people’s sexual contacts – but there’s little or no data about routine social or physical contact with others. No other country is carrying out this research in this much detail.

“There are understandable growing concerns about the current situation and a possible pandemic; we need to find out as much as possible about social contacts,” he said.

Dr Read, who has just returned from a project studying the spread of flu in China, said that the UK led the world in this field of research.

“We will be sharing our findings with scientific communities around the globe,” said Dr Read.

The questionnaire is easy to complete and asks participants to list all the people they met on a particular day, detailing for how long, whether at home, in the workplace or socially, how often they met and, most importantly, how many of those people they actually touched.

“From the results we will have a much better idea of how quickly an epidemic could spread, and the measures that would be needed to control it,” said Dr Read.

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