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03/14/2013

Getting paid to get the flu

Flu
(Credit: Dreamstime)

Call it Big Brother gone viral.

In the United Kingdom, 41 strangers are each getting paid more than $1,500 (Cdn) to live together in isolation for nearly two weeks, the BBC reports. They will be constantly monitored, forced to spend 15 hours together, and banned from drinking, smoking and strenuous exercise.

Half of them will also be infected with the flu -- on purpose.

The group is participating in a more than $11 million study to research flu transmission. Half of the volunteers are willingly infected with a mild seasonal strain of the flu called A(H3N2) and the other half is divided into two sub-groups: those with face shields (meaning they can't be infected by aerosol droplets) and those with no protection at all.

According to Jonathan Van-Tam with Nottingham University's School of Community Health Sciences, "it's extraordinary" that this type of research has never been done before.

"To put it crudely, we're interested in whether it's the big bits that fly out when you cough and sneeze - we call those large droplets - or the tiny bits - which are referred to as aerosols - which are important in transmission," he told World Update on the BBC World Service.

"The only way we could do this was to actually have people with real flu and put them in a position where they can infect others and we can then study how that happens."

One of the volunteers -- a 31-year-old firefighter named "Chloe" -- told the BBC the experience "was a bit like Big Brother" aside from the fact that everyone got along well. Volunteers also had to be accompanied to the bathroom and she was banned from touching her face -- itches were scratched with lollipop sticks.

The volunteers, who began their cough-and-sniffle-filled vacation on March 4, will be closely monitored until they go home on March 17. Researchers will then compare the different groups and see how they both fared.

Van-Tam said the study results could be applied to more dangerous flu strains, such as avian or swine flu, and lead to better health care practices -- deciding, for example, whether health workers should wear inexpensive surgical face masks or costly respirators when they treat sick patients.

He also said there will be two more trials coming up in collaboration with international partners, including the U.S., Australia and Canada.

Jennifer Yang is the Toronto Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

Comments

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10 People with face shields, 10 without; doesn't strike me as an adequate sample size to draw any kind of conclusions. If this study were conducted 20 times over, you might have the confidence to make some guesses.

Also, study is flawed - many people believe flu is transmitted by touching your face (eyes, nose) with infected hands. Wouldn't a faceshield prevent people from touching their own face, skewing the results?

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