SALT LAKE CITY — Last week, students at Clayton Middle School helped epidemiologists follow the trail of the flu and other respiratory diseases, simply by being themselves.
They were participating in a study called CUSP, Contact among Utah School-age Population.
Molly Leecaster, a statistician in the Epidemiology Division of the University of Utah's School of Medicine, is trying to figure out how students make contact with each and use that information to calculate how disease spreads in schools.
"So far there's some limited self-report data," she says, "but mostly we make assumptions about what that contact pattern is."
For two school days Clayton students carried around little black boxes, radio transmitters and receivers. The boxes transmitted signals every 20 seconds and received and recorded those signals whenever they came within four to six feet of each other. That's about the distance a cough or sneeze can send germs.
Students also filled out self-report logs of the contacts they made during those days.
Leecaster will take the data gathered at Clayton and other schools - she'll visit about two dozen, in all - and plug it into computer models to develop a better understanding of how disease spreads and how best to stop it.
"So if you recall H1N1, 2009," she explains, "They closed some schools. They closed some camps. Were these the right decisions? In some cases they could show, yes, it really dampened the spread of disease and when they went back to school they didn't have outbreaks. In some cases they went back to school and they still had outbreaks."
She says the results could be used to show the effectiveness of other interventions, like changing schedules and having kids each lunch in their classrooms.
A study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tracked the spread of H1N1 through a Pennsylvania elementary school in 2009.
Researchers concluded closing the school after the epidemic started did not stop the flu from spreading and that the disease was spread among friends. Sitting next to an infected student did not increase the chances of infection.
The results of the CUSP study could impact more than the school system, as it's been shown schools have a disproportionate impact on the spread of the flu and other infectious diseases.
According to mathematical models, vaccinating 70 percent of children for the flu would keep the illness from reaching epidemic levels.
University of Washington Professor of Biostatistics Elizabeth Halloran says immunizing 20 percent of school-age children is more effective at reducing deaths in seniors, than immunizing 90 percent of seniors themselves.
Molly Leecaster plans to complete her study and an initial report next summer.