Social contact survey and modelling the spread of influenza

Lead Research Organisation: University of Warwick
Department Name: Biological Sciences


When the HIV epidemic was recognised in the 1980s, vast amounts of work were undertaken to reveal the networks of sexual encounters through which HIV could spread. Knowing this allowed scientists to develop accurate predictions of the way the epidemic would grow. Given the current risks of pandemic influenza, it is necessary to collect similar information on the types of personal interaction which can lead to the spread of influenza or other airborne infections. We have developed a simple anonymous questionnaire which we wish to distribute to homes in the UK -- as well as developing a web-based questionnaire. The results of this survey will provide a picture of the types, duration and number of social contacts per person in the UK. This data will then enable us to create a far more accurate mathematical model which will be used to predict the spread of influenza in the UK, identify the most at-risk sections of the community, and help to inform policy makers and public-health organisations about the best way to control any outbreaks.

Technical Summary

Mathematical models of infectious diseases play an increasingly important role in planning for (re)emerging infections, allowing public health organisations to optimise limited resources or ascertain the level of resources necessary to ensure a particular outcome. However, such models are only as good as the data used to parameterise them. This project seeks to determine the per capita number (and type) of social interactions in the UK, and calculate how such information can be incorporated into state-of-the-art epidemiological models. In particular, we have developed a simple single-use questionnaire that captures the interpersonal interactions that are most important for the spread of airborne infectious disease; we wish to extend our pilot studies to large-scale postal and web-based investigations of the general UK population. This information will be statistically analysed to determine the distribution of (and cross-correlations between) different types of social contacts. In addition, we will develop a range of sophisticated mathematical techniques to determine the plausible transmission-network structures associated with various airborne-infectious diseases, to incorporate this information with existing spatial and household-based modelling approaches, and hence understand how this extra contact information influences disease spread and efficient control. Disseminating the findings of our research to relevant public health organisations and other relevant stakeholders forms an essential component of the project.


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Description Data from this survey being used in planning for COVID-19
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
Impact The results from this contact survey and the models that have been developed as part of the project are being used in planning for CORVID-19.
Description JCVI
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in advisory committee
Impact Modelling results (and interpretation of data) help to inform the UK's vaccine policy. I am the many mathematical modeller on this panel.
Description SPI-M
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Participation in advisory committee
Impact Due to my work in this area I have been acting chair for the UK government's Scientific Pandemic Influenza advisory group (Modelling subcommittee), and have attended meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE)
Description EPSRC Project Grant EP/H016139/1 Implications of clustering (motif-structure) for network-based processes
Amount £290,372 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/H016139/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2010 
End 10/2013
Title Contact Survey Data 
Description Information of social contacts for over 5000 individuals; including contact duration, location, type and clustering. This material is being released on-line with publications 
Type Of Material Physiological assessment or outcome measure 
Year Produced 2013 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Many of our publications are based on this survey data. Data is now shared on-line and is being used by other groups. 
Description JCVI 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Part of JCVI (joint committee on vaccination and immunization).

MRC funded research helped to shape vaccine policy for pandemic influenza.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010
Description SPI-M 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Health professionals
Results and Impact Part of SPI-M panel. Acting chair of meeting during "swine-flu" pandemic

Results of MRC funded research informed a variety of policy decisions during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009,2010
Description Talk to local HPA representatives 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Health professionals
Results and Impact Talk to local HPA representatives

It developed a greater understanding between our two groups
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009