Scientists use Olympics to study spread of infectious diseases

VANCOUVER — As an international crowd of athletes and supporters gathered en masse in Vancouver, some scientists used the Olympics as their virtual test tube to find out how to prevent the outbreak of diseases spread by air travel, the Canwest News Service reported Feb. 25.

Two projects in Toronto and Boston — both led by Canadians — tracked international flights to the city, as well as an online database of worldwide diseases, in order to test a system that could one day prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

"We haven't had, anywhere in the world, a system that is integrating global movements of people through air travel with global infectious disease surveillance through the Web," said Kamran Khan, a scientist at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto.

Khan's project, called bio.DIASPORA, was created six years ago to study global air traffic patterns. To test the way diseases might travel by air during the Olympics, it was combined with HealthMap, a Boston-based project that uses 30,000 sources to track diseases logged in "real time" as they are reported online. A Canadian scientist, John Brownstein, leads HealthMap.

"Mass gatherings can amplify and disseminate infectious diseases around the world," Khan said. "If that person-to-person spread occurs and as these people return to the home cities and home countries, the epidemic may actually go with them, so there may be new epidemics that are spawned in other parts of the world."

For his part, Khan and his researchers discovered that about two-thirds of all international travelers attending the Olympics would be coming from a pool of 25 cities across the world. In co-operation with the aviation industry, they were able to analyze flight movements to understand how many flights arrived and departed in Vancouver.

When combined with HealthMap, the researchers hoped to learn of potential outbreaks before they happen.

"There's a considerable untapped potential in focusing on prevention. Very often, we focus our attention on responding to threats after they arise. But I think there's really an opportunity for us to be thinking more about preparing for threats before they occur," Khan said.

"If we can understand how the global community is interconnected, then we can understand how we share risks in the world and how we might share responsibilities for infectious disease threats."

He said the projects would be put to use for other events, such as this summer's G20 meeting in Ontario and the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

Both projects, which are publicly funded, can be viewed online.