Professor and Head
Hong Kong University
Patterns of social contact between individuals are important for the transmission of many pathogens and shaping patterns of immunity at the population scale. To refine our understanding of how human social behaviour may change over time, we conducted a longitudinal study of Hong Kong residents. We recorded the social contact patterns for 1450 individuals, up to four times each between May 2012 and September 2013. We found individuals made contact with an average of 12.5 people within 2.9 geographical locations, and spent an average estimated total duration of 9.1 h in contact with others during a day. Distributions of the number of contacts and locations in which contacts were made were not significantly different between study waves. Encounters were assortative by age, and the age mixing pattern was broadly consistent across study waves. Fitting regression models, we examined the association of contact rates (number of contacts, total duration of contact, number of locations) with covariates and calculated the inter- and intra-participant variation in contact rates. Participant age was significantly associated with the number of contacts made, the total duration of contact and the number of locations in which contact occurred, with children and parental-age adults having the highest rates of contact. The number of contacts and contact duration increased with the number of contact locations. Intra-individual variation in contact rate was consistently greater than inter-individual variation. Despite substantial individual-level variation, remarkable consistency was observed in contact mixing at the population scale. This suggests that aggregate measures of mixing behaviour derived from cross-sectional information may be appropriate for population-scale modelling purposes, and that if more detailed models of social interactions are required for improved public health modelling, further studies are needed to understand the social processes driving intra-individual variation.