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Contagion: What Lurks at Your Airport?

  • Nancy DuVergne Smith

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Map shows airports influence on the spread of disease.

Conventional wisdom suggests that airplanes are great places to catch viruses and spread bacteria. Apparently some of that is true. A new MIT study actually identifies which airports are the most likely to spread a pandemic.

Civil and Environmental Engineering researchers have examined the first few days of an epidemic, determining how likely the 40 largest U.S. airports are to influence the spread of a contagious disease from their home cities. Understanding this can help public health officials make decisions, such as the distribution of medications, that might stem an outbreak.

A given airport could become an aggressive spreader of disease because of complex factors. It is not about size, apparently. The airports with the most traffic are not the most influential spreaders of disease, they say.  Examining travel patterns and  geography is more useful.

Associate Professor Ruben Juanes's studies of the flow of fluids through fracture networks in subsurface rock and the research of Assistant Professor Marta González, who uses cellphone data to model human mobility patterns and trace contagion processes in social networks, helped determine influential travel patterns.

And which airport is most likely to spread contagion?

Kennedy Airport is ranked first, followed by airports in Los Angeles, Honolulu, San Francisco, Newark, Chicago (O'Hare), and Washington (Dulles).

Read the MIT News article for the full list, details on the research, and a video illustrating the spread of disease.



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