Inferring the Structure of Social Contacts from Demographic Data in the Analysis of Infectious Diseases Spread
Social contact patterns among individuals encode the transmission route of infectious diseases and are a key ingredient in the realistic characterization and modeling of epidemics. Unfortunately, the gathering of high quality experimental data on contact patterns in human populations is a very difficult task even at the coarse level of mixing patterns among age groups. Here we propose an alternative route to the estimation of mixing patterns that relies on the construction of virtual populations parametrized with highly detailed census and demographic data. We present the modeling of the population of 26 European countries and the generation of the corresponding synthetic contact matrices among the population age groups. The method is validated by a detailed comparison with the matrices obtained in six European countries by the most extensive survey study on mixing patterns. The methodology presented here allows a large scale comparison of mixing patterns in Europe, highlighting general common features as well as country-specific differences. We find clear relations between epidemiologically relevant quantities (reproduction number and attack rate) and socio-demographic characteristics of the populations, such as the average age of the population and the duration of primary school cycle. This study provides a numerical approach for the generation of human mixing patterns that can be used to improve the accuracy of mathematical models in the absence of specific experimental data. The dynamics of infectious diseases caused by pathogens transmissible from human to human strongly depends on contact patterns between individuals. High quality observational data on contact patterns, usually presented in the form of age-specific contact matrices, are difficult to gather and are currently available only for few countries worldwide. Here we propose a computational approach, based on the simulation of a virtual society of agents, allowing the estimation of contact patterns by age for 26 European countries. We validate the estimated contact matrices against those obtained by the most extensive field study on contact patterns, with data collected in eight European countries. We show that our contact matrices share some common features, e.g. individuals tend to mix preferentially with individuals their own age, and country-specific differences, which can be partly explained by differences in population structures due to different demographic trajectories followed after WWII. Our analysis highlights well defined correlations between epidemiological parameters and socio-demographic features of the populations. This study provides the first estimates of contact matrices for many European countries where specific experimental data are still not available.