Wednesday, July 1, 2009

How H1N1 spread

ATLANTA - IN A startling measure of just how widely a new disease can spread, researchers accurately plotted H1N1 flu's course around the world by tracking air travel from Mexico.

The research was based on an analysis of flight data from March and April last year, which showed more than 2 million people flew from Mexico to more than 1,000 cities worldwide. Researchers said patterns of departures from Mexico in those months varies little from year to year; H1N1 flu began its spread in March and April this year.

Passengers travelled to 164 countries, but four out of five of those went to the United States. That fits with the path of the epidemic a year later. The findings were reported Monday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The research shows promise in forecasting how a new contagion might unfold, indicated one government health official who praised the work.

The new H1N1 flu virus was first reported in the United States in mid-April, but the first large outbreak was in Mexico at about the same time. Health officials believe cases of the new virus were circulating in Mexico in March.

Scientists have long assumed a relationship between air travel and spread of the virus. But the new research for the first time confirmed the relationship, said Dr Kamran Khan, who led the study. He is a researcher at St Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

For years, Dr Khan and his colleagues have been working on a system to use air travel information quickly to determine how a new contagion is likely to spread around the world.

Their data sources include the International Air Transport Association, an international trade association representing 230 airlines and the vast majority of scheduled international air traffic.

The study showed the majority of passengers flew to the United States, with Canada a distant second and France a more distant third.

More than 90 per cent of the time, Dr Khan and his colleagues accurately matched air traffic volumes to which countries did and did not suffer H1N1 flu outbreaks as a result of air traffic. -- AP

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