Contacts of leprosy patients have a higher risk of developing clinical leprosy. Being a contact is defined socially, but with the introduction of geographical information systems (GIS) in infectious disease epidemiology, it is necessary to relate spatial distance to social distance. We measured the distances between patients and their socially defined contacts in northwest Bangladesh. Contact categories differ in mean distance to the index patients. Sixty-seven per cent of the high-risk contacts lived within 10 metres (m), while all low-risk contacts lived >10 m from the index patient. Classification based on intervals of spatial distance creates categories that contain contacts of different socially defined categories, illustrated by a category of people living between 10 m and 20 m consisting of 47% of high-risk contacts and 52% low-risk contacts. Classification of contacts based on the spatial distance, as performed with GIS techniques, produces other groups than with social definitions.
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