Controlling 'superspreaders' could be key to stopping epidemics, researchers say

So-called "superspreaders" play an immensely important role in spreading disease during epidemics, according to research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For instance, about 3 percent of people infected in the 2014-15 Ebola epidemic in West Africa were responsible for infecting 61 percent of all cases.

Superspreaders also helped spread severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003 and Middle East respiratory syndrome in 2012.

In fact, researchers posit that controlling superspreaders could have prevented nearly two-thirds of infections during the Ebola epidemic.

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"We now see the role of superspreaders as larger than initially suspected," said Benjamin Dalziel, PhD, an assistant professor at the College of Science at Oregon State University in Corvallis and co-author of the study. "In our analysis we were able to see a web of transmission that would often trace back to a community-based superspreader."

Dr. Dalziel and other researchers analyzed a dataset from the Safe and Dignified Burials program conducted by the Red Cross during the Ebola epidemic to determine how the disease spread throughout communities.

Their findings could change how public health officials approach stymieing future epidemics.

"As we can learn more about these infection pathways, we should be better able to focus on the types of individual behavior and demographics that are at highest risk for becoming infected and transmitting infection," Dr. Dalziel said.

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