PUBLISHED: 22:40 EST, 24 July 2012 | UPDATED: 02:21 EST, 25 July 2012
Travelers who are planning to pass through some of America’s biggest transportation hubs like John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York or LAX in Los Angeles now have another cause for concern beside long lines and terror threats: the heightened possibility of catching and spreading SARS or swine flu.
According to a new study published on Monday in the scientific journal PLoS One, a team of researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering created a computer model that predicts how the 40 largest American airports may contribute to the spread of contagious disease within the first few days of a potential epidemic.
What is most surprising, however, is that smaller transportation hubs that handle far fewer passengers on a daily basis than the New York and Los Angeles behemoths can also play a crucial part in the diffusion of viruses.
Scroll down to watch computer simulation
The MIT study claims that the third most outbreak-friendly airport in the U.S. is Honolulu International, although it handles about a third of the passengers that pass through LAX, which occupies the second slot on the list behind JFK.
Unlike existing models, the new MIT simulation takes into consideration individual travel patterns, the geographic locations of airports, the disparity in interactions among airports, and waiting times at airports.
While Honolulu is neither the busiest airport in the U.S., nor even among the top 20 biggest hubs (such as Chicago O’Hare and Minneapolis St Paul, both of which featured in the unsettling 2011 medical thriller Contagion), volume is not the sole factor in disease spreading.
Other virus-embracing hubs include San Francisco, Newark, Chicago’s O’Hare and Washington DC’s Dulles airports.
Atlanta’s airport, which is the world’s busiest hub serving more than 89 million people a year, was ranked only eighth in its ability to diffuse disease.
What has earned Honolulu’s airport the dubious honor of a third place is the fact that according to the MIT team, it has a trio of key features necessary to kick-start an epidemic.
Its geographical location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean makes it a prime layover between the West Coast and large Asian hubs in countries like China and Japan; it is also ‘well connected’ to other powerful spreader airports, such as LAX; and it sees a high volume of long-range travel; all of which would help to spread a disease outbreak.
In an effort to make their model true to life, MIT professor Marta Gonzalez and her team analyzed cell phone data on top of passenger itineraries to determine actual travel patterns, including layovers and re-routing.
‘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,’ MIT energy studies professor Ruben Juanes to PloS One.
While computer simulations cannot predict with accuracy when or if a new outbreak will happen, they can help officials at high-risk hubs like Hawaii’s airport improve existing measures for containing infections and come up with more efficient plans for the distribution of vaccines.
The study comes on the heels of the 2009 H1N1 ‘swine flu’ pandemic that killed some 300,000 people worldwide. Eight years prior, the SARS virus spread to 37 countries and caused about 1,000 deaths.