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Stanford researchers chart response to swine flu with online survey

BY ADAM GORLICK

With swine flu reports on the rise, more people are avoiding crowds, washing their hands frequently and thinking about wearing surgical masks when they go outside.

While many are designing and following their own lists of do's and don'ts as the pandemic unfolds, two Stanford researchers are trying to understand their reactions. In a survey launched Wednesday, James Holland Jones, an assistant professor in anthropology, and Marcel Salathe, a postdoctoral researcher in biology, are asking people how anxious they are about swine flu, where they get their news about it and what they're doing about the virus.

Rather than looking for those answers after the headlines die down and memories grow murky, Jones and Salathe are using their 16-question poll to gather real-time information about how people are reacting. The poll asks participants for information on where they live, so the researchers will be able to track reactions by location.

"One of the interesting things about a virus is the emotion it causes," Salathe said. "Depending on how informed you are, you may be more anxious or calm about it. When the information is new, it seems like more of a threat. But two months later, when you have more information, people tend to be more calm and they may have forgotten that they first responded more irrationally."

Salathe said it's too early to start tabulating the responses to the survey. But in the first two days it has been online, about 2,000 people have taken it.

By studying people's reactions, the researchers are hoping to get better insight into how a virus like swine flu could be managed. Pandemics are often controlled with steps like closing schools, canceling public gatherings and setting up quarantines. If antiviral drugs and vaccines aren't available, those so-called "social distancing" measures help prevent the virus from spreading.

But as news of the virus spreads—often faster than the virus itself—people create their own methods of social distancing that often aren't suggested or managed by public health officials.

Those methods are likely to change as more information becomes available, and that's what Salathe and Jones are trying to chart.

"People will change their behavior as this continues, and that can have an impact on how the virus spreads," Salathe said.

The survey was designed with support from the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences.