Researchers identify potential sources of disease with social network mathematics

Scientists in Spain and the U.S. recently identified animal species that may transmit more diseases to humans by using mathematical tools that are similar to tools used to study social networks like Facebook.

The study, which was recently published in PNAS, describes how interactions between parasites and primates could transmit diseases like AIDS, yellow fever and malaria to humans. The findings could contribute to prediction models of the animal species most likely to cause pandemics.

José Maria Gómez, a professor with the University of Granada Ecology Department and the principal author of the study, and his collaborators constructed a network of approximately 150 non-human primate species. The researchers then measured the connections between the species.

"Most emerging diseases in humans are zoonotic, that is, they are transmitted to humans by animals," Gómez said. "To identify animal species that are potential high-risk sources of emerging diseases it's essential we set up mechanisms that control and observe these diseases."

Gómez and his team found that the most central primates with connections to many other primates were more capable of spreading parasites to humans and other species. The researchers confirmed their hypothesis by relating the centrality value of each primate with the number of emerging pathogens the primates share with humans.

"The only information needed to construct these networks is the diversity and type of parasite infecting each host -- and we already know about many zoonotic organisms," Gómez said. "This is why we think that our approach will be useful in developing early warning plans for emerging disease in humans."