Study: Flu Viruses Travel on US Roads and Railways

<a href="http://www.istockphoto.com/photo/sick-woman-driver-64495947?st=b601613">kieferpx</a>/iStock


Viruses are hitching a ride with commuters on the nation’s roads and railways, adding to the chaotic movement that makes seasonal outbreaks difficult to track and contain.

In a study published Thursday in PLOS Pathogens, researchers at Emory University tracked genetic variations in two strains of influenza between 2003 and 2013. They concluded that states highly connected by ground transit tended to have similar genetic variations of the flu, and they matched their findings with illness case data that showed closely timed epidemic peaks in those states. The researchers believe ground transit connectivity may be a better indicator of where a disease is likely to spread than air travel connections or even geographic proximity, though they say both remain important factors.

The US Interstate Commuter Network shows the number of people traveling daily between states for work. Courtesy of Bozick, CC-BY

Modern transport networks complicate the movement of viruses: In the past, contagion moved person to person and village to village, resulting in “wave-like patterns” of genetic variation that correspond to geographic distance, the report says. But with 3.8 million people in the United States taking ground transportation across state borders each day and 1.6 million doing so by air, the spread of illness has become far more chaotic: Transcontinental flights help foster bicoastal outbreaks, while well-traveled commuter corridors between Kansas and Missouri may mean those states share illnesses as neighboring areas go unscathed.

Researchers found that “commuting communities,” divided into colored regions, tended to span state borders. Travelers carried influenza along with them. Courtesy of Bozick, CC-BY

The researchers hope their study, which they believe to be the first of its kind at the scale of the continental United States, will help epidemiologists better understand influenza’s seemingly unpredictable spread.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.