FluPhone - Influenza, your mobile, your network, and you

Author: Graham Wheeler

Every year the UK is subject to the "influenza invasion"; a three-month period between December and March where the country is brought to a standstill. For the majority of people, the inevitable headache, fever and perpetual tiredness lead to a few days out of the office and a few days in bed. However on a more serious note, seasonal flu is responsible for hundreds of deaths every year and costs the UK millions of pounds through lost productivity and increases in public health spending. Due to the fact that flu is highly contagious, it is rather difficult to accurately predict how the virus will spread once an outbreak has been detected... until now.

A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge, the University of Liverpool and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have created a mobile phone application that is able to summarise the structure of population networks, and thus record how often people interact and how widespread their social networks stretch.

The future of modelling influenza epidemics?

The future of modelling influenza epidemics?
Image by Milkmooney/Wikimedia Commons

FluPhone - the title of the project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Medical Research Council - is the latest technological advance that aims to model how people interact, how they change their social behaviour during a flu epidemic and also record what symptoms of flu the participants are suffering from.

The application itself asks the user to detail if they are suffering from any symptoms associated with influenza, whilst concurrently monitoring the proximity between users via Bluetooth technology. In a previous study, data were collected over a period of several months - which fortunately coincided with an outbreak of swine flu - and an ex post facto analysis showed the complex network structures of users.

One of the most interesting observations found from the study was that some users were asymptomatic, or carriers, capable of spreading the disease yet not exhibiting any symptoms. Professor Jon Crowcroft, one of the project's co-principal investigators from the Computing Laboratory at the University of Cambridge said, "Our system is capable of identifying these asymptomatic 'superspreaders' because they show up by virtue of the contacts who develop the disease".

Dr. Eiko Yoneki, Crowcroft's fellow co-principal investigator who is also based at Cambridge's Computing Laboratory, noted the ability of FluPhone to be used as a modelling tool by creating a "what-if" scenario and examining the subsequent results.

"A specific disease infection model can be programmed, and the fake 'pathogens' can be transmitted via Bluetooth radio communication when two individuals are in proximity range", said Dr. Yoneki. Essentially, by choosing a random number of the users to be "infectious", FluPhone allows the investigators to see how the virus would spread throughout the population.

This has proved to be a fantastic tool.

- Professor Jon Crowcroft

The study itself has given a new perspective in order to tackle the seasonal flu virus. Collaborations with epidemiologists, statisticians, psychologists and even economists are allowing researchers, companies and governments to sensibly decide how to act during an epidemic, ensuring that rational public health advice is provided, preventive and protective vaccinations programmes are set up efficiently and that both human and financial losses are minimized.

Furthermore, a much larger project is being planned by the University of Cambridge and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that will see FluPhone being introduced in small villages in several African countries, including Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda.

For more information on the FluPhone project, and to register to join the study, visit www.cl.cam.ac.uk/research/srg/netos/fluphone

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