Jan
26
2006

Scientists in Germany and California have been thinking about how to predict the path of a pandemic disease. It all comes down to money—following the money, that is.

The researchers modeled a pandemic's spread using data from the Internet game Where's George?, where players enter the serial numbers of bills they have. As money changes hands over time, the game tracks how it moves. Since money—like viruses—travels with people, the game also let researchers model how people, and microbes, move around. And their findings suggest that a modern pandemic will spread in leaps and bounds, rather than slowly moving through an area at a well-defined rate.

Past vs. present pandemics
Past pandemics traveled relatively slowly because people didn't travel as much, as far, or as fast. The 14th century "black plague" pandemic, for example, spread in predictable waves over a confined area. It moved at an average rate of just over a mile a day, and took three years to infect all of Europe.

But modern travel means that pandemics will travel much more quickly, and according to different rules. A pandemic arising in New York today, for example, might follow the historical pattern for a while. But eventually an infected person from New York would get on a plane and travel to another city, starting another local pandemic. And towns in between the two cities might not be affected at all. (This is what actually happened in 2003, when the SARS virus first appeared in China, jumped to Hong Kong, and then hit Toronto, Canada.)

Want to know more about avian flu?
Everyone's wondering about avian flu: will it mutate to allow human-to-human transmission? Where? When? How dangerous will it be? And how will it spread? For more on avian flu, check out the Buzz kiosk in the Human Body Gallery on Level 4 of the museum, or jump to our online feature.

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