As the number of cases of influenza A(H1N1) (“swine flu”) continue to rise, researchers are seeking solutions to slow the spread of the virus. A recent report from CNN indicated that the World Health Organization (WHO) has recorded 29,669 cases and 145 deaths in 74 countries. The virus has been categorized as a phase 6 “moderate pandemic” by the WHO, meaning that most individuals who are infected will recover. However, amidst recent reports of mothers bringing their children to “swine flu parties” to expose them to the virus (a practice that the British Medical Association has spoken out against), an individual has presented with drug-resistant swine flu. Efforts to create effective vaccines are ongoing, as are alternative means of tracking and slowing the spread of the virus.
A group of Canadian researchers have analyzed the correlation of the spread of the disease (specifically focusing on influenza virus A (H1N1)) and air travel patterns. The project, known as BioDiaspora, tracks the movements of 2.2 billion airline passengers annually which can then be used to map the possible and probable spread of disease. As reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers gathered data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) from the period between March and April 2008. Information about a total of 2.35 million passengers who flew from Mexico to 1,018 cities in 164 countries was mapped and compared to the spread of A(H1N1) to date. According to Dr. Kamran Khan, preliminary data indicated “If you had fewer than 1,400 arrivals from Mexico, you had only a 7 percent chance of getting an imported case.” In countries with more than 1,400 arrivals, the chance of infection in the area increased to 92 percent.
By tracking the spread of outbreaks of disease and comparing them with air travel patterns, researchers can predict which regions are at the highest risk of early infection. According to Dr. Michael Gardam, director of infectious disease prevention and control for the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion, disease-tracking tools may prove invaluable when dealing with outbreaks of infectious diseases, particularly those with short incubation periods. With this information, it will be possible to inform physicians in potential hotbeds of infection about how to identify a given disease, and ensure that vaccines are prepared and available in order to help stop the spread.