News Release 

'Social distancing,' nature's natural response to infectious disease

American Association for the Advancement of Science

Research News

While the use of "social distancing" to manage COVID-19 has become all too familiar in our current day-to-day lives, changing social behaviors to limit interactions and slow the spread of infectious disease is common throughout the animal kingdom. Many nonhuman animals - from bugs to birds - exhibit pathogen-induced behavioral changes to avoid disease transmission in their social groups. In a Review, Sebastian Stockmaier and colleagues showcase animal responses to infectious disease in a variety of species and show how changes in social behavior by susceptible, exposed or sick individuals can have far-reaching impacts on disease spread. "Nonhuman animals' social distancing strategies may be experimentally tractable, enabling manipulative experiments or multigeneration observations that are impossible with humans. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to global calls for "social distancing" to slow the spread of the virus. However, while these strategies are proven to reduce transmission rates, they are politically controversial, and some have resisted the approach. According to Stockmaier et al., social distancing is a natural consequence of disease throughout the animal world. Here, the authors focus on six physiological or behavioral responses to infection that alter social interactions within a group, including sickness behaviors (immune-mediated lethargy) and self-isolation in the sick, and avoidance or exclusion of the sick by susceptible individuals. However, not all behaviors are rooted in avoidance and isolation. Like humans, some animals appear to care for their sick, increasing their exposure to infection, which may facilitate transmission. According to the authors, the many examples of sickness-induced behavioral changes across the animal kingdom afford valuable opportunities to study underlying epidemiological mechanisms and consequences, including how contagious pathogens spread through social networks, how social networks change in response to pathogens and how these feedbacks influence host-pathogen evolution. "Public health measures experienced during past and current pandemics have raised awareness for social distancing, and epidemiological studies are actively evaluating their effectiveness and required duration," write the authors.


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