Toddlers teaching researchers about how germs spread

Early learning centres are where kids often go to learn and play, but they’re also where kids can pick up illness. Now, a University of Guelph team has begun a research project to try to determine the best ways to prevent these infections using mathematical modelling.

“This project really began from my frustration as a parent, noticing my child was always getting ill and consequently being told to stay home, me along with him,” says the project’s lead, Prof. Monica Cojocaru, Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

“I wondered if there might be better ways to figure out how to prevent more of these illnesses.”

The pairing of math and illness prevention is nothing new; modelling is often used to estimate the effectiveness of medical interventions such as vaccines in large populations, for example.

The first step to understanding how infections spread in a child-care centre requires mapping out typical contact patterns of the children among themselves and with staff and/or surfaces.

Cojocaru and her students are working with U of G’s Child Care and Learning Centre on the project. She says it will be a challenge, since kids move in unique ways at different stages in their development.

“They run everywhere, they bump into things and other kids, they roll on the floor, they put things in their mouths. So, in this environment, we can’t assume a rational element of behaviour in their movements,” she says.

The team will then simulate the introduction of several pathogens into its scale model, such as rotavirus, flu virus, respiratory syncytial virus and norovirus. Some of these pathogens travel in the air, some spread through one-on-one contact and some contaminate surfaces.