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Living in a rural community is no protection against the spread of an infectious disease, according to researchers at Kansas State University. In fact, closer ties among rural residents may help to spread a contagion more efficiently and more widely, according to computer models developed by the KSU engineers.

Urban residents are less likely to interact with sick neighbors and are therefore less likely to either contract or to spread the disease. In rural communities, the researchers found in a survey they conducted, the number of people who would be willing to visit others during a major disease epidemic is double that of urban areas. In cities, people may have more informal contact with many people, but close contact with few. “In a rural setting, you’re maybe more likely to watch out for all of your neighbors, and your neighbors may also be your uncles, aunts and other family members,” one of the researchers said.

As a result, the researchers found that epidemics will spread further and faster in rural communities. Add to that a decreased access to hospital and doctors and rural areas are “especially vulnerable during an epidemic.” The K-State researchers suggested that vaccines be given first to those rural residents who have the most contact with the largest number of people. Those living in small towns know exactly who those very important people are.

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