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Airport study ranks Pittsburgh International No. 25 on disease spreader list

Tom Fontaine
| Wednesday, July 25, 2012, 12:19 a.m.

An infectious disease originating in Pittsburgh would spread across the globe more quickly than one starting in Cleveland, Indianapolis or Nashville, according to a study of airports.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology looked at factors including airport traffic, passengers' travel patterns and wait times to mathematically predict how aggressively disease would spread from each of the nation's 40 busiest airports.

“Pittsburgh would be less of an aggressive disease spreader than some of the super-spreaders like JFK or LAX,” said MIT associate professor of energy studies Ruben Juanes, referring to list-topping John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Los Angeles International Airport.

Pittsburgh ranked No. 25; Cleveland, 26th; Indianapolis, 29th; and Nashville, 33rd.

“Based on where (Pittsburgh) is located geographically and its number of long-range flights and connections to airports that are themselves well-connected, it could move an outbreak or disease a great distance in a few hours or a few days,” Juanes said.

Pittsburgh once had more than 600 daily flights to more than 110 destinations, but today has just 150 daily flights to 36 destinations. They include far-away locales such as Paris, Los Angeles and San Francisco. All but four destinations were among the study's top 20 airports.

Juanes said research is still in its early stages, but he thinks it could ultimately help authorities better decide where to allocate vaccines during an outbreak and identify the most vulnerable areas for biological attack.

“I think it confirms a lot of what we have intuitively known, that airports with a lot of traffic and a lot of flights going to different parts of the world are more likely to spread diseases around the world,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an associate at the Center for Biosecurity of UPMC, based in Baltimore.

Adalja, who was not involved with the study, said the study contained a couple of surprises. Honolulu International Airport ranked third, despite being much smaller than airports behind it; and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport ranked eighth despite consistently being the world's busiest passenger airport.

Juanes said Honolulu ranked high because it connects to large hubs across North America, Asia and Australia, and all flights are long-haul trips. Atlanta, on the other hand, has a large number of short flights.

Pittsburgh International spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny said officials had not reviewed the study, but said the ventilation system in its buildings could help combat the spread of airborne viruses.

“If a particular section of the (airside) terminal would be infected, there's a way of trapping the air so it doesn't circulate to other areas,” Jenny said.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or

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