Which airports are more likely to spread contagion?

Transportation Safety Administration agents guard a security checkpoint as passengers prepare to pass through the metal detector at John F. Kennedy (JFK) airport August 27, 2003 in New York City. During a press conference today, the TSA displayed some of the thousands of pieces confiscated by TSA agents from people attempting to board their flights. Since February 2002, airport security screeners have confiscated approximately 7.5 million items. Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

A passenger goes through the security checkpoint at John F. Kennedy (JFK) airport, August 27, 2003 in New York City.
Stephen Chernin/Getty Images
(CBS News) Warning: If you're traveling through any of the airports listed below, you might want to bring some hand sanitizer and wash your hands frequently. A computerized model created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's department of civil and environmental engineering puts a spotlight on which airports are most likely to spread contagions and start a pandemic.

High-trafficked airports JFK Airport in New York and Los Angeles International Airport top the list at No. 1 and No. 2 respectively, but the airport coming in third sees far fewer passengers passing through: Honolulu International Airport. The Hawaii-based airport, however, ranked high on the list because it's a prime layover location for flights between the U.S. and Asia, making it a stepping stone for contagions. The airport also often connects flights to larger airports and has a lot of long-range destinations.

The study was published in PLoS on July 19.

Pandemics like the 2003 outbreak of SARS spread to 37 different countries and caused 1,000 deaths, according to the study's press release. Even more recently, the 2009 outbreak of HQN1 flu killed 300,000 people worldwide.

"Our work is the first to look at the spatial spreading of contagion processes at early times, and to propose a predictor for which 'nodes' -- in this case, airports -- will lead to more aggressive spatial spreading," Ruben Juanes, the ARCO Associate Professor in Energy Studies in CEE, said in the press release.

Researchers focused on the theoretical first 15 days of a pandemic rather than areas that had the highest rate of infections in order to look at how airports could spread an infectious disease. Using a computer model based on passenger itineraries and cellphone data, the team was able to predict real-world travel patterns and see which airports were most susceptible to harboring contagions.

Steven Soderbergh's 2011 movie "Contagion" took a fictionalized look at how a pandemic could start in the United States. The film featured Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport as two airports that received "patient zero" and showed how the disease started from there. In real life, O'Hare ranked six on the list, and Minneapolis-St.Paul came in at number 17.

Surprisingly, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, which is the world's busiest airport, was listed as eight on the list. Although it has a lot of traffic, it mostly handles flights to small regional airports, making it less likely to pick up passengers who were carrying diseases from around the world.

The top 10 worst airports for the spread of contagion are:

1. John F. Kennedy (New York City)

2. Los Angeles International

3. Honolulu International Airport

4. San Francisco International Airport

5. Newark Liberty International Airport

6. O'Hare International Airport (Chicago)

7. Dulles International Airport (Washington, D.C)

8. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (Atlanta)

9. Miami International Airport

10. Dallas-Fort Worth Airport

Researchers said the study wasn't meant to make people avoid airports because only a small amount of them are "very good spreaders" when it comes to disease. Instead, the results can help determine which areas should receive vaccines first in case of an outbreak.

"This can improve the measures for containing infection in specific geographic areas and aid public health officials in making decisions about the distribution of vaccinations or treatments in the earliest days of contagion," Marta Gonzalez, professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at MIT and one of the people who developed the model, said to the Guardian.

"Techniques such as multi-scale computer modelling ... can make a contribution to strengthening our societies' adaptiveness, resilience, and sustainability," she added.

To see how infectious disease can spread, watch the video from MIT News below:

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