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Study Looks at Role Airports Play in Spread of Disease, Pandemics

LOS ANGELES — Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have studied the role airports play in spreading disease and pandemics. They found that airports in New York, Los Angeles and Honolulu can spread disease more aggressively than others.

Airports and planes move more than only people. They have also transported diseases such as influenza, SARS, and turburculosis.

Yatta Montrell is flying to Hong Kong and Malaysia from Los Angeles. Every time she travels, she worries about getting sick.

“I try to take travelers' shots and carry hand sanitizer,” she said.

Some airports in the United States are able to spread disease more quickly, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

They looked at the volume of traffic, the amount of long-range travel and connections from certain airports. New York’s Kennedy airport and LAX in Los Angeles ranked highest by those measurements.

Researcher Ruben Juanes was surprised that Honolulu’s smaller airport ranked third in its ability to spread a pandemic. In a Skype interview with VOA, Juanes explains why.

“It’s in the middle of the ocean so virtually every connection is a long-range connection that can take away infected passengers very quickly over many thousands of kilometers. And even though the number of connections is small, a large fraction of them are hubs in Asia or North America,” Juanes stated.

MIT factored in the travel patterns of individuals: the length of their trips and layovers.

Thomas Valente, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, says the study is a reminder that airports can spread pandemics more easily than other transportation hubs.

“Airports move people around and, when you’re at an airport, you have time to wait for a plane to leave or if you’re meeting somebody for it to land," said Valente. "So there’s lots of people sitting in close proximity waiting for things to happen.”

Sometimes a traveler catches a disease that originated far from home.

“Not only will we see more pandemics but we are all globally at more risk to things that are happening in other places,” Valente added.

Jonathan Samet heads the Institute for Global Health at the Universtiy of Southern California. “Many infections are spread just simply by people touching the same surfaces that are contaminated," he said. "So on airplanes again bathrooms, doorknobs are places where infections might spread."

Health experts say frequent handwashing is a precaution travelers can take to prevent illness when they’re on the plane or at the airport.

MIT’s Ruben Juanes says the study may help forecast how disease will spread when another outbreak occurs.