Genomics-social network combo can halt disease outbreaks

May 23rd, 2011 - 12:55 pm ICT by IANS  

Facebook Toronto, May 23 (IANS) Combining bacterial genome sequencing technology with social networking analysis can help public health officials track and halt epidemics more effectively.

And while it may sound like something having to do with Facebook, social network analysis takes traditional epidemiology one step further, asking patients about more than just with whom they have been in contact.

“The power of genome sequencing, which, when combined with the detailed clinical and epidemiological data we have access to, allows us to reconstruct outbreaks and really understand how a pathogen moves through a population,” says study author Jennifer Gardy.

Gardy of the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, Canada and her colleagues used this new technique to track and eventually stop a tuberculosis (TB) outbreak in the province.

An outbreak of TB occurred over a three-year period in British Columbia. Public health officials turned to traditional methods to identify the source and other contributing factors, but the results were hazy, according to a British Columbia statement.

Researchers combined two new tools to get a clearer picture of the outbreak: social network analysis, which has become rather commonplace in tracking infectious diseases, and whole-genome sequencing (analysis of the entire microbe’s DNA).

“The complete genome sequence of a pathogen is the ultimate DNA fingerprint, and now, with the costs and time associated with genome sequencing dropping almost exponentially, it is possible to sequence most or all of the bacterial isolates taken from an outbreak,” says Gardy.

In this case, Gardy and her colleagues asked patients for a detailed account of their time on a daily basis, including where they went and what they did at those places.

“Instead of getting a list of names, you are getting names, places and behaviours, and you can paint a much more detailed picture of the underlying structure,” says Gardy.

“Key people and places and certain behaviours that might be contributing to an outbreak’s spread become much more apparent and allow you to adjust your outbreak investigation in real time as this new information becomes available.”

These findings were presented at the 111th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology Sunday.

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