Objective: The objective of this study was to examine the relationship between social distance (measured as the geodesic, or shortest distance, between 2 people in a connected network) and geographic distance (measured as the actual distance between them in kilometers [km]).
Study: We used data from a study of 595 persons at risk for HIV and their sexual and drug-using partners (total N = 8920 unique individuals) conducted in Colorado Springs, Colorado, from 1988 to 1992--a longitudinal cohort study that ascertained sociodemographic, clinical, behavioral, and network information about participants. We used place of residence as the geographic marker and calculated distance between people grouped by various characteristics of interest.
Results: Fifty-two percent of all dyads were separated by a distance of 4 km or less. The closest pairs were persons who both shared needles and had sexual contact (mean = 3.2 km), and HIV-positive persons and their contacts (mean = 2.9). The most distant pairs were prostitutes and their paying partners (mean = 6.1 km). In a connected subset of 348 respondents, almost half the persons were between 3 and 6 steps from each other in the social network and were separated by a distance of 2 to 8 km. Using block group centroids, the mean distance between all persons in Colorado Springs was 12.4 km compared with a mean distance of 5.4 km between all dyads in this study (P <0.0001). The subgroup of HIV-positive people and their contacts was drawn in real space on a map of Colorado Springs and revealed tight clustering of this group in the downtown area.
Conclusion: The association of social and geographic distance in an urban group of people at risk for HIV provides demonstration of the importance of geographic clustering in the potential transmission of HIV. The proximity of persons connected within a network, but not necessarily known to each other, suggests that a high probability of partner selection from within the group may be an important factor in maintenance of HIV endemicity.