Prioritising medical students with lots of friends for flu jabs could help increase the number of healthcare workers protected against the virus, say Lancaster University researchers. In a study in The Lancet, they calculated that vaccination rates would rise if people with large social networks influenced their peers. The government wants 75% of healthcare workers to be vaccinated. At present, only about half of them are vaccinated.

More than 200 medical students at Lancaster University – who are soon to become healthcare workers – gave researchers information on how friendly they were with other students and how much time they spent with them. This study suggests that vaccination strategies that target highly connected individuals within a network might limit the spread of infectious disease” Dr Thomas Keegan Lancaster University

The Lancaster research team then ran a computer simulation of an influenza outbreak 1,500 times to find out what effect vaccinating some well-connected individuals had on the spread of the flu. “It is clear that some individuals have a disproportional effect on disease dynamics,” researcher Rhiannon Edge said.  “This study suggests that vaccination strategies that target highly connected individuals within a network might limit the spread of infectious disease.”

They said this was because people who are connected within a social network can influence each other’s behaviour, even when not connected directly. And sometimes this can work both ways. “If an individual’s vaccination decision is affected by their immediate social circle, clusters of unvaccinated individuals can develop – and these clusters may then facilitate outbreaks of infection.”

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