It's not easy being popular — at least, not when you have to worry about your higher risk of catching the flu.
According to a study published online Wednesday in PLOS One, people who rank high in social groups tend to contract infections sooner — thus, they can provide researchers with crucial first-response data on epidemics before they spread beyond control.
The paper hinged on the principle that the friends you name are likely to be more popular than you – people higher in the social pecking order who have more social connections.
Because these people act as connectors in larger social networks, they're likely to encounter diseases sooner than their peers.
Researchers took a sample of 319 Harvard students and asked those undergraduates to name two or three friends, coming up with a list of 425 other students (some were named more than once).
Then they monitored both groups of students – the random group and the group made up of the first group's collected friends – during the 2009 flu season. Lo and behold, the "friends" group got the flu about two weeks before the random group did.
The fact that a disease would manifest so much earlier in the popular crowd, the study authors say, could help researchers identify an epidemic before it ever takes off in the general population, perhaps even nipping it in the bud. That would be a major advancement. For one thing, vaccines tend to be given out weeks (perhaps months) after an epidemic has peaked, and they only protect a lucky slice of the population. And a lot of the innovative proposed ways of tracking flu outbreaks – using Google Trends to measure the frequency of flu-related searches, for example – would only be able to track outbreaks as they happen, not before.
A popularity-based tracking system is far from a reality, though. So in the meantime, if you want to prepare yourself for flu outbreaks (regardless of your social status), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a wealth of resources on influenza.