The dynamics of sexual contact networks: effects on disease spread and control.


Sexually transmitted pathogens persist in populations despite the availability of biomedical interventions and knowledge of behavioural changes that would reduce individual-level risk. While behavioural risk factors are shared between many sexually transmitted infections, the prevalence of these diseases across different risk groups varies. Understanding this heterogeneity and identifying better control strategies depends on an improved understanding of the complex social contact networks over which pathogens spread. To date, most efforts to study the impact of sexual network structure on disease dynamics have focused on static networks. However, the interaction between the dynamics of partnership formation and dissolution and the dynamics of transmission plays a role, both in restricting the effective network accessible to the pathogen, and in modulating the transmission dynamics. We present a simple method to simulate dynamical networks of sexual partnerships. We inform the model using survey data on sexual attitudes and lifestyles, and investigate how the duration of infectiousness changes the effective contact network over which disease may spread. We then simulate several control strategies: screening, vaccination and behavioural interventions. Previous theory and research has advanced the importance of core groups for spread and control of STD. Our work is consistent with the importance of core groups, but extends this idea to consider how the duration of infectiousness associated with a particular pathogen interacts with host behaviours to define these high risk subpopulations. Characteristics of the parts of the network accessible to the pathogen, which represent the network structure of sexual contacts from the "point of view" of the pathogen, are substantially different from those of the network as a whole. The pathogen itself plays an important role in determining this effective network structure; specifically, we find that if the pathogen's duration of infectiousness is short, infection is more concentrated in high-activity, high-concurrency individuals even when all other factors are held constant. Widespread screening programmes would be enhanced by follow-up interventions targeting higher-risk individuals, because screening shortens the expected duration of infectiousness and causes a greater relative decrease in prevalence among lower-activity than in higher-activity individuals. Even for pathogens with longer durations of infectiousness, our findings suggest that targeting vaccination and behavioural interventions towards high-activity individuals provides comparable benefits to population-wide interventions.

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