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School Children Wear Proximity Sensors to Help Pitt Researchers Fight Flu

PITTSBURGH, Nov. 1, 2012 – Hundreds of school children on Election Day – a scheduled day off from school – will wear proximity sensors to help University of Pittsburgh researchers learn more about the spread of influenza and the impact of school closures on slowing epidemics.
Dubbed the “Social Mixing And Respiratory Transmission in Schools,” or SMART Schools, study, the  deployment will be the largest of its kind and is part of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) effort to create a national policy on school response to flu and pandemics.

“This unprecedented study will contribute greatly to our knowledge on influenza outbreaks and what we can do to disrupt their spread,” said Charles Vukotich Jr., M.S., senior project manager at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health. “We are very appreciative of the support from teachers, parents, students and administrators in the Canon-McMillan and Propel Charter school districts.”

On Monday, Nov. 5, a proximity sensor – called a “mote” – will be sent home with each participating child at Borland Manor Elementary and North Strabane Intermediate schools in the Canon-McMillan School District. The children will wear the motes, which weigh three ounces and are about the size of a beeper, on lanyards all day at school Monday, all day while home on Tuesday, and all day at school Wednesday until they return them to the researchers.

The battery-powered motes send out a weak signal to detect other motes and record when it detects one. The researchers use the data collected by the motes to determine how often children come in contact with each other.

“We know that children can drive influenza outbreaks, but we don’t know how or why,” said Shanta Zimmer, M.D., associate professor in Pitt’s School of Medicine. “Knowing their interaction and contact patterns will give us much needed real-world data that can be used to conduct research, test hypotheses and run computer simulations.”

“Schools are a setting that can contribute to the increased spread of diseases in the general community,” said Jeanette Rainey, Ph.D., senior epidemiologist at the CDC. “If we can better understand how influenza spreads in schools, that may help us develop better strategies to prevent disease not only among school-aged children, but also in the general community. By collecting information on how school-aged children mix in and outside of school, the SMART Schools project is laying the foundation for us to develop, test and implement successful prevention strategies."

The data will allow researchers to investigate whether limiting movement between classes during the school day, increasing vaccination campaigns, instituting educational programs, changing sick leave policies or instituting programs that encourage hand sanitizer use are better interventions for controlling the spread of flu.

This is the second year of the SMART Schools study, and the first time the motes have been sent home with the children on a scheduled day off from school. Last year children in eight schools in the Canon-McMillan School District in Washington County and Propel Charter Schools in Allegheny County wore the motes during the school day. A mix of elementary, middle and high schools were included.

“We are happy to be part of this investigation to help stop the spread of disease,” said Michael Daniels, superintendent of the Canon-McMillan School District. “Keeping children well and in class is an important factor in educating our children. We hope that this study will mean fewer illnesses and fewer absences for students everywhere.”

Preliminary results from last year’s mote deployments showed that each child over all grades interacted with an average of 109 other children during the school day. High school students interacted more than middle school students. The students interacted the most at mid-day. 

The children also are given diaries to record who they come in contact with during a 24-hour period. This helps the researchers incorporate information about people who might not be wearing the sensors.

In the diary, relationships are identified with generic terms, such as mother, friend or teacher, to maintain confidentiality.

“When the students took the motes home overnight last year, we found that they would still cluster together after school and well into the evening,” Mr. Vukotich said. “This provides us some evidence that simply closing schools for a few days will not stop children from interacting with each other.”

The Pitt SMART Schools study includes the following additional researchers: Hasan Guclu, Ph.D.; Shawn T. Brown, Ph.D.; and John Grefenstette, Ph.D., all at Pitt Public Health; Derek Cummings, Ph.D., M.P.H., at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Jonathan Read, Ph.D., University of Liverpool Institute of Infection and Global Health; and Jeanette Rainey, Ph.D., and Amra Uzicanin, M.D., M.P.H., at the CDC.

Follow this hyperlink to view video about the SMART Schools study.

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