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Joe Stuteville
School of Informatics

Last modified: Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Model forecasts global patterns of airline-carried diseases

Jan. 31, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Scientists at the Indiana University School of Informatics have built a model to help better predict the outbreak of pandemic influenzas and other diseases which spread along the world's commercial airline routes.

The researchers' analysis shows that large-scale mathematical models that take fully into account the complexity of the air transportation network can be used to obtain a detailed forecast of emerging disease outbreaks. Their study, which appears in the Jan. 30 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, also demonstrates it is possible to assess the predictability of epidemic patterns, thereby providing a tool that might be used to help scientists better forecast outbreaks and to analyze and develop containment measures.

"From our study, it becomes apparent that the air-transportation-network properties are responsible for the global pattern of diseases," says Alessandro Vespignani, professor of informatics. "In this view, the complex features of the network are the origin of the unrelated and seemingly erratic spreading of diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome."

"While SARS has been largely contained," adds Vittoria Colizza, a member of the research team, "it offers a paramount example of how far and how fast future epidemics could spread, particularly pandemic influenzas."

The team used the massive passenger-flow databases of International Air Transport Association, an organization of 265 airlines which comprises 99 percent of all international air traffic. Census information derived from 3,100 urban areas in 220 countries and related disease patterns from those areas also was collected.

Using advanced computational capabilities, the researchers were able to run more than 10,000 mathematical modeling equations simultaneously to obtain predictions and confidence intervals.

Joining Vespignani and Colizza as co-authors are Marc Barthélemy, visiting faculty scholar; and Alain Barrat, a researcher with Université Paris-Sud, Orsay, France. Their study was partially funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

"The tools developed by this modeling naturally offer a wealth of information useful in risk assessment and the evaluation of disease-containment policies," says Vespignani, who is internationally known for his research in the statistical analysis and computer modeling of epidemics and how they spread.

The School of Informatics researchers say they are also beginning to evaluate databases of highway and rail traffic and their interrelations with air transport to further develop forecasting models for disease.

About the Indiana University School of Informatics

The Indiana University School of Informatics offers a unique, interdisciplinary curriculum that focuses on developing specialized skills and knowledge of information technology. The School has a variety of undergraduate degrees and specialized master's and doctorate degrees in bioinformatics, chemical informatics, health informatics, human-computer interaction, laboratory informatics, new media and computer science. Each degree is an interdisciplinary endeavor that combines course work and field experiences from a traditional subject area or discipline with intensive study of information and technology. For more information, visit the School's Web sites: