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Open Access Research article

Controlling epidemic spread by social distancing: Do it well or not at all

Savi Maharaj* and Adam Kleczkowski

Author Affiliations

Computing Science and Mathematics, University of Stirling, Stirling FK9 4LA, United Kingdom

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BMC Public Health 2012, 12:679  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-679

Published: 20 August 2012

Abstract

Background

Existing epidemiological models have largely tended to neglect the impact of individual behaviour on the dynamics of diseases. However, awareness of the presence of illness can cause people to change their behaviour by, for example, staying at home and avoiding social contacts. Such changes can be used to control epidemics but they exact an economic cost. Our aim is to study the costs and benefits of using individual-based social distancing undertaken by healthy individuals as a form of control.

Methods

Our model is a standard SIR model superimposed on a spatial network, without and with addition of small-world interactions. Disease spread is controlled by allowing susceptible individuals to temporarily reduce their social contacts in response to the presence of infection within their local neighbourhood. We ascribe an economic cost to the loss of social contacts, and weigh this against the economic benefit gained by reducing the impact of the epidemic. We study the sensitivity of the results to two key parameters, the individuals’ attitude to risk and the size of the awareness neighbourhood.

Results

Depending on the characteristics of the epidemic and on the relative economic importance of making contacts versus avoiding infection, the optimal control is one of two extremes: either to adopt a highly cautious control, thereby suppressing the epidemic quickly by drastically reducing contacts as soon as disease is detected; or else to forego control and allow the epidemic to run its course. The worst outcome arises when control is attempted, but not cautiously enough to cause the epidemic to be suppressed. The next main result comes from comparing the size of the neighbourhood of which individuals are aware to that of the neighbourhood within which transmission can occur. The control works best when these sizes match and is particularly ineffective when the awareness neighbourhood is smaller than the infection neighbourhood. The results are robust with respect to inclusion of long-range, small-world links which destroy the spatial structure, regardless of whether individuals can or cannot control them. However, addition of many non-local links eventually makes control ineffective.

Conclusions

These results have implications for the design of control strategies using social distancing: a control that is too weak or based upon inaccurate knowledge, may give a worse outcome than doing nothing.