Animal Ownership and Touching Enrich the Context of Social Contacts Relevant to the Spread of Human Infectious Diseases.


Many human infectious diseases originate from animals or are transmitted through animal vectors. We aimed to identify factors that are predictive of ownership and touching of animals, assess whether animal ownership influences social contact behavior, and estimate the probability of a major zoonotic outbreak should a transmissible influenza-like pathogen be present in animals, all in the setting of a densely populated European country. A diary-based social contact survey (n = 1768) was conducted in Flanders, Belgium, from September 2010 until February 2011. Many participants touched pets (46%), poultry (2%) or livestock (2%) on a randomly assigned day, and a large proportion of participants owned such animals (51%, 15% and 5%, respectively). Logistic regression models indicated that larger households are more likely to own an animal and, unsurprisingly, that animal owners are more likely to touch animals. We observed a significant effect of age on animal ownership and touching. The total number of social contacts during a randomly assigned day was modeled using weighted-negative binomial regression. Apart from age, household size and day type (weekend versus weekday and regular versus holiday period), animal ownership was positively associated with the total number of social contacts during the weekend. Assuming that animal ownership and/or touching are at-risk events, we demonstrate a method to estimate the outbreak potential of zoonoses. We show that in Belgium animal-human interactions involving young children (0-9 years) and adults (25-54 years) have the highest potential to cause a major zoonotic outbreak.

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