Sometimes we discover the information we’re looking for by accident, while we’re searching for something else. A detailed analysis of flu patterns shows that the sharp dip in air travel after 911 slowed the spread of flu and delayed the beginning of the 2001-2002 US flu season. If there’s a bird flu epidemic, would it be a good idea to curtail air travel?

Researcher John Brownstein says, “The post-September 11th flight ban was a natural experiment on the effect of flight restrictions on disease spread. For the first time we’ve been able to show, using real data, that air travel spreads the flu, suggesting that reducing the number of air passengers might ameliorate a flu pandemic.”

The spread of avian flu (H5N1) in Asia and Europe, including some likely cases of person-to-person transmission, has intensified debate over whether flight restrictions should be imposed to curb emerging flu pandemics. Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States government are considering such restrictions.

For domestic flights, airline volume in November 2001 was an especially strong predictor of flu spread. With the Thanksgiving holiday, November is typically one of the busiest travel months of the year, but in 2001, many people kept close to home or sought other forms of travel. Brownstein says, “Thanksgiving is when new flu strains often spread across the country.”

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