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JFK could spread disease

JFK International Airport
Photo by Christina Santucci
By Rich Bockmann

John F. Kennedy International Airport has the most potential of all U.S. airports to be the most influential global-superspreader of contagious diseases, according to a new study released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Researchers in the school’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering created a detailed model of mobility patterns at the country’s 40 largest airports, and found that due to its connectivity, traffic and geography, JFK would have the largest influence in spreading a disease during the first 15 days of an outbreak.

“Our work is the first to look at the spatial spreading of contagion processes at early times and to propose a predictor for which ‘nodes’ — in this case, airports — will lead to more aggressive spatial spreading,” said Ruben Juanes, an associate professor.

Conventional models created by scientists who study complex networks examine which locations ultimately develop the highest infection rates, but the MIT researchers’ model focused on how influential an airport would be in spreading a disease that originated in its home city.

Researchers used cellphone data to model travel patterns among airports to determine the likelihood of any single traveler flying from one airport to another, and found that the largest airports are not necessarily the most influential.

JFK ranked first followed by Los Angeles International, but both have fewer flights each year than the nation’s busiest airport, Harsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta, which came in eighth.

Honolulu International Airport, on the other hand, has only about 30 percent as much air traffic as JFK, but due to its location and many connections to distant, large and well-connected hubs, it ranks third in terms of its contagion-spreading influence.

Rounding out the rankings were airports in San Fransisco, followed by Newark, Chicago’s O’Hare and Washington’s Dulles. Boston’s Logan International Airport ranked 15th.

The study could lead to New York City getting its fare share of vaccines for diseases akin to SARS or H1N1.

“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,” Juanes said.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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