Swine Flu Spreads By Air Passengers Extremely Fast

The Canadian group runs a project called BioDiaspora that tracks 2.2 billion airline passenger movements each year. Wherever the next epidemic starts, Khan says, the group can use its air-travel database to predict which places are at highest risk of early spread.

Graphic showing the number of passengers who arrived in cities flying from Mexico

NPR.org, June 30, 2009 · The jet plane is the swine flu virus's best friend. A Canadian team shows why in a graphic published online this week by the New England Journal of Medicine.

The new flu virus was literally jet-propelled. It had the help of 2.4 million airline passengers in spreading around the world before anybody knew it existed. That's approximately how many people flew out of Mexico in March and April. Many of them unknowingly carried the novel H1N1 flu virus far beyond its first stronghold.

Dr. Kamran Khan of St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto says the number of passengers arriving from Mexico in those months predicted whether a country would import the new flu. Though the data are from a year earlier, the Canadian team says international air travel patterns are consistent.

"If you had fewer than 1,400 arrivals from Mexico, you had only a 7 percent chance of getting an imported case," Khan said. But countries with more than 1,400 arrivals had a 92 percent chance of getting the flu, he said.

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