Replacing sick healthcare workers with healthy ones spreads disease quicker in some epidemics

The spread of some diseases during epidemics relies greatly on human behavior, and researchers from the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico discovered that replacing sick workers — be they healthcare workers, teachers or first responders — with healthy ones fuels the spread of disease.

Replacing sick workers with healthy ones is typical human behavior, but isn't incorporated in existing epidemiological models. To rectify this, researchers at SFI studied 17 years of data on flu and dengue and incorporated human exchange into models of disease spread.

The subsequent analysis found that human exchange accelerates flu outbreaks, since influenza is spread person to person, but doesn't affect dengue spread, since that is a mosquito-borne illness.

"Models where you start to incorporate slightly more realistic human behavior are essential if we're going to make high-fidelity public health and clinical decisions," said Laurent Hebert-Dufresne, PhD, a theoretical physicist who contributed to the research.

The researchers' paper was published in Nature Physics.

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