Airports were proven to be vectors that helped the spread of epidemics and pandemics years ago, and researchers have been trying to find a way of dealing with that ever since. Now, experts create a map of the most dangerous airports in the United States, when it comes to contamination hazards.
At the beginning of the 20th century, when the Spanish flu pandemic hit the globe, the virus needed several months to reach all corners of the world, infecting people as far away as Antarctica.
However, the 2003 SARS epidemics and the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic reached all corners of the world within a couple of days, all because authorities lost containment of the situation at crowded airports.
Living in a deeply interconnected world is good for business and communications, but extremely bad for public health, as demonstrated by the speed at which viruses spread through social circles, from city to city and country to country.
Studying epidemic spread patterns is no mean feat. The simulations that need to be conducted are extremely complex, and made even more so by the fact that people oftentimes behave irrationally and unexpectedly. Predicting how they interact is virtually impossible, but approximations can be made.
Focusing on the first few days of an outbreak, researchers at the Cambridge-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology
's (MIT) Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering created a list of the top 40 airports in the US likely to promote the spread of an epidemic.
Some of the factors taken into account include the geographic location of the facilities, their level of interconnectedness, individual travel patterns between them, waiting times between flights and so on.
“Our work is the first to look at the spatial spreading of contagion processes at early times, and to propose a predictor for which 'nodes' – in this case, airports – will lead to more aggressive spatial spreading,” expert Ruben Juanes says.
“The findings could form the basis for an initial evaluation of vaccine allocation strategies in the event of an outbreak, and could inform national security agencies of the most vulnerable pathways for biological attacks in a densely connected world,” he adds.
Juanes holds an appointment as the MIT ARCO associate professor in energy studies at the CEE.
“In the model, Kennedy Airport is ranked first, followed by airports in Los Angeles, Honolulu, San Francisco, Newark, Chicago (O'Hare) and Washington (Dulles),” the MIT group says.
“Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which is first in number of flights, ranks eighth in contagion influence. Boston's Logan International Airport ranks 15th,” the group concludes.