A Facebook application developed in a lab at Israel's Tel Aviv University that simulates the spread of a virus may serve as a strong indicator of how infections spread among populations.
The app, called PiggyDemic, allows users to "infect" their friends with a simulated virus or become infected themselves. The resulting patterns may allow researchers to gather information on how a virus mutates, how it spreads through human interaction and the amount of people it infects, Health Care IT News reports.
Gal Almogy and Nir Ben-Tal of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at TAU's George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences developed the app. Scientists currently use mathematical algorithms to determine which virus will spread and how, but the system assumes a virus has equal distribution across populations, which does not take into account patterns of social interaction.
"HIV is concentrated in Africa; certain types of flu are widespread in North America and Asia," Almogy said, according to Health Care IT News. "Adding the element of human interaction, and looking at the social networks we belong to, is critical for investigating viral interaction."
Because Facebook's digital interactions simulate in-person interactions, the site is an ideal tool for such an undertaking, according to Almogy.
Once the app is added to a user's account, PiggyDemic follows the user's newsfeed to determine the people with which they interact, according to Health Care IT News. The researchers follow these interactions using network visualization software, which creates a more accurate model of viral dynamics. Almogy said that improving this model is vital for developing public health policy.
"People who have this software can report if they are actually ill," Almogy said, according to Health Care IT News. "If we know who their friends are and the sequence of the infecting virus, we can figure out which virus they have and how it passes from one person to another."