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Devastating forms of the flu such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrom (SARS) -- the pneumonia-like illness that killed more than 700 people in 2003 -- and the still-rampant bird flu, which has killed 143 people so far, have prompted scientists to search for ways to contain outbreaks.
Researchers started by comparing the number of air travelers between 1996 and 2005 with the number of flu and pneumonia cases during that time. After identifying the regular peak date for the annual flu season as being within two days of Feb. 17, the study results -- published in the PLoS Medicine Journal -- reported that the peak hit on March 2 in 2001 following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
After the attacks, all international and domestic flights in the United States were grounded for days and many travelers ended up canceling their flights altogether. During the following three years, the peak date returned to approximately normal parameters, the study found.
"Pandemic preparedness strategies should account for a possible benefit of airline travel restrictions on influenza spread," the researchers said.
"This study indicates not only that a restriction in air travel can help stop the spread of influenza, but more importantly that the ease of global travel in the world today creates an environment ripe for the spread of infectious disease," added Mike Adams, author of How to Beat the Bird Flu. "In the 1918 pandemic, air travel was exceedingly rare, and yet the virus still managed to go global. Today, with air travel commonplace, an airborne virus has a near-perfect environment for spreading at a rate that far outstrips the ability of health authorities to stop it or even track it."
"As we saw with SARS, an airplane can actually serve as the hub of infection, and it can transport a virus from Asia to North America in mere hours," Adams said.