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Scientists Assess Risk of Flu Pandemic Spread Via Global Airlines

An Indiana University School of Informatics-led team of researchers has constructed a model that predicts how an emerging pandemic influenza might spread across the globe// by airliners.

The study, "Modeling the Worldwide Spread of Pandemic Influenza: Baseline Case and Containment Intervention," appears in the January issue of the journal PLoS Medicine. The model they devised is said to be the world's largest-scale epidemic simulation of its kind.

H5N1 avian influenza, commonly referred to as bird flu, has not yet resulted in a pandemic influenza because the virus lacks the ability to spread efficiently and sustainably among humans. However, public health officials are greatly concerned that a human flu strain could be triggered by the H5N1 virus, which is found in bird flocks around the world and has repeatedly crossed the species barrier and infected people.

The recent outbreaks of avian flu started in Southeast Asia in mid-2003. Within two years, the virus had spread beyond that region, very likely carried by wild birds along their migratory routes. The avian influenza virus has been reported in several Asian countries, the Balkans region, Western Europe and some regions in Africa.

"The threat of a pandemic is pushing the international community to discuss scenario analysis and develop adequate preparedness plans," Colizza said. "This calls for the need to understand the possible propagation of a pandemic, in order to devise and test appropriate intervention strategies to contain and mitigate its evolution and impact on the population."

The researchers developed a mathematical model using massive passenger-flow databases from the International Air Transport Association, an organization of airlines comprising 99 percent of worldwide commercial air traffic. Census information from more than 3,000 urban centers in 220 countries and related disease patterns from those areas also was analyzed.

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