Easton's research group ran a computer simulation on a hypothetical disease outbreak in a rural town in which on Day 1 everyone is healthy. By Day 20, they found that everyone would have contracted the disease.
"We found that person-to-person contact is most important," Easton said. "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.
The 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.
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.
The research was presented in Hyogo, Japan, in Delft, Netherlands, and most recently at the International Federation for Information Processing Networking 2009 in Aachen, Germany. It also is slated to appear in multiple academic journals.
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