It may be safe to travel to countries (mostly in Asia) that have bird flu, but it’s not necessarily safe to travel on an airplane with people who have it!

Viruses are easily passed around in the confined air of an aircraft, and an a team of researchers has constructed a model that predicts how an emerging pandemic influenza might spread across the globe by airliners, just as SARS did.

The H5N1 bird flu virus has not yet resulted in a pandemic because the virus lacks the ability to spread efficiently between humans. It’s known that flocks of birds have infected people, although not all researchers agree that it has been passed from person to person.

The recent outbreaks of avian flu started in Southeast Asia in mid-2003. Within two years, the virus had spread beyond that region, very likely carried by wild birds along their migratory routes. Bird flu has been reported in several Asian countries, the Balkans region, Western Europe and some regions in Africa.

Here’s one scenario the model predicts: A flu virus originating in Hanoi, Vietnam, with a reproductive number of 1.1 (a measure of how many people are infected on average by an infectious person) poses only a very mild global threat. Increase that number to 1.5 and the flu potentially could infect half the population in more than 100 countries. Intervention measures would therefore be necessary.

The researchers show that strict travel restrictions would do little, if anything, to prevent the flu from spreading throughout the globe. Encouragingly, the model predicts that the use of antiviral drugs would significantly thwart a global flu outbreak within certain ranges of infectiousness if every country in the world had a drug stockpile sufficient to treat 5-10% of their populations.

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