Citizen science project to reveal transmission of infection

Citizen science project to reveal transmission of infection

A two-year ‘citizen science’ project, funded by the Evelyn Trust, is working hard to challenge assumptions made about the transmission of infection among young people at school.

The findings could be important for the future planning of public health interventions, such as vaccination programmes.

“Decisions on vaccination programmes, such as for ‘flu, are based on mathematical models about how infectious illnesses are spread by self-reported social contact. Collecting such social contact data is hard in itself, so no studies have been able to rigorously test the assumption that reported contacts can predict spread. Having worked with schools on previous engagement projects, we began to wonder whether students in school could help us to do this. Children are at the centre of the spread of some infections because they have a wide social network, coming into contact with a wide range of groups including other children, teachers, parents and grandparents. So we planned a project that could produce real data on the spread of an infection and at the same time prove a useful science project for secondary school children, engaging them actively in citizen science,” says Dr Andrew Conlan, University Lecturer of Epidemiology at the Disease Dynamics Unit, Department of Veterinary Medicine, University of Cambridge.

The bacterium that the team decided to track is Staphylococcus aureus which lives primarily on the skin, but it can become life-threatening if it passes into the bloodstream. Students who joined the project are taking samples from their noses using cotton wool swabs at various points throughout the school year, while also completing social contact forms to map their interactions – defined as people with whom they have conversations. The anonymised social contact data will then be compared with the data on infection by the children themselves. The project in currently running in two Cambridgeshire schools and has become a productive element of both science and maths lessons.

“We are working to expand the project by recruiting another couple of local schools this year. Towards the end of our second year, we will compare the social networks reported by students with inferred transmission networks from whole genome sequencing of the samples. We will then explore the extent to which social contact data can improve our understanding of the direction of transmission and the rates of colonisation, persistence and recolonization in individuals.

“Engagement is a key driver of the project, so pupils will be presenting their own results to our department and we will visit participating schools to present the final findings to the school communities that made the project possible. There’s lots of potential for activities and educational resources to be devised and tested over the course of the project, so we plan ultimately to develop those into a school’s pack and publish them online. Citizen science is a fantastic way to get children excited about real world science and of course we want to encourage that enthusiasm in the next generation of scientists,” adds Andrew.

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