Rethinking Healthcare

Top disease-spreading airports in the U.S.

Posting in Cities

MIT scientists have developed a new model that judges airports in terms of their disease spreading influence. Where does your airport rank? Hint: it's not all about size.

In 2003, SARS spread to 37 countries and killed a thousand people; the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic killed about 300,000 people around the world.

Now, scientists have developed a new model of disease contagion that judges airports in terms of their spreading influence. Which ones are likeliest to play major roles in the growth of a pandemic? MIT News reports.

To determine how likely the 40 largest U.S. airports are to influence the spread of a contagious disease originating in those cities, MIT researchers focused on the first few days of an epidemic.

Most models focus on the final stages, examining locations that ultimately developed the highest infection rates. This new approach, however, could help determine measures for containing infection and aid public health officials with decisions on vaccination distribution or treatments in the earliest days of contagion.

To create a tool that predicts where and how fast a disease might spread, they incorporated:

  • variations in travel patterns among individuals,
  • the geographic locations of airports,
  • the disparity in interactions among airports,
  • waiting times at individual airports.

Turns out, it’s not about size. Biggest airport hubs (in terms of traffic) aren’t the most influential spreaders of disease.

While the Honolulu airport gets only 30 percent as much air traffic as New York's Kennedy International Airport, the new model predicts that it is nearly as influential in terms of contagion because of where it fits in the air transportation network: its location in the Pacific Ocean and its many connections to distant, large, well-connected hubs makes it third in terms of contagion-spreading influence.

  1. New York’s Kennedy Airport is ranked first by the model.
  2. Followed by airports in Los Angeles, Honolulu, San Francisco, Newark, Chicago (O'Hare), and Washington (Dulles).
  3. Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which is first in number of flights, ranks 8th in contagion influence.
  4. Boston's Logan International Airport ranks 15th.

The team was led by Ruben Juanes from MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

The work was published in PLoS ONE earlier this month.

[Via MIT News]

Image: Juanes Research Group

Share this

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure