Empathy key component in ending infectious disease outbreaks, study finds

Infected individuals taking precautions against transmitting an illness to others is the most influential factor in ending an outbreak, according to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports that used a mathematical simulation.

Researchers constructed the simulation with random probability models informed by behaviors people exhibit during an infectious disease outbreak. The model pitted the self-interest of infected persons against those of individuals susceptible to infection to better understand the role of individual behavior in the spread of infectious disease.

Health initiatives to protect the public from infectious disease begin with immunization efforts like seasonal flu shots. Significant efforts are then made to encourage susceptible individuals to take precautions against infections like implementing good hand hygiene practices. But if sick individuals expose others by choosing to go work or another public place while ill, these efforts can be compromised, according to the study.

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The researchers' model found the behaviors of infected individuals to be particularly important toward the end of an outbreak when the perception of risk among susceptible individuals is lower. When an outbreak is at its peak, those susceptible to infection are more likely to engage in preventative behaviors. When the number of infected individuals declines, so do the precautionary efforts of those at risk for infection.

These findings led researchers to conclude that the empathy of infected individuals toward those who are not infected is crucial toward controlling outbreaks.

"When we studied individual behavior, empathy trumped risk aversion in disease eradication, which was counterintuitive for us," said lead study author Ceyhun Eksin, a postdoctoral fellow in the school of biological sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. "We need to champion the benefits of empathy by sick individuals to eradicate disease in the community."

More articles on infection control: 
Measles patient may have exposed others at 2 Scripps healthcare facilities 
Study: Antibiotics ineffective treatment for children with mild eczema 
AHRQ releases CAUTI, HAI toolkit for long-term care facilities

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