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Don’t Stop the Planes…Yet!

The outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus that began earlier this year still rages on throughout West Africa. The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that as of last week (September 15th) a minimum of 2,793 individuals had been lost to the disease in five countries. As the plague like disease continues to spread experts plead to travel businesses and governments alike not to impose restrictions on international travel nor trade to the affected countries. Coordination of transport is a huge problem in the affected areas and continues to get worse as the treating-to-treated ratio plummets. Flight cancellations and other bans on travel to these countries will only make it that much harder to contain the disease with proper personnel and treatments.

The spread of disease is a striking example of social networks. Connections are made between the individuals (Nodes) that acquire the infection from one another, and as the disease continues to spread, these networks explode exponentially. Network maps similar to those that we’ve learned about in class are what epidemiologists use to track the spread of a disease and/or its origin. This information can help researchers fight the disease, prevent it’s recurrence, or at least discover the chance of a mutation developing.

The fact that the WHO are actively asking flights not to be cancelled almost seems contradicting. We’ve already seen the WHO impose quarantines throughout Sierra Leona last week, which work by cutting off individuals from others that are infected thus eliminating the chance of the diseased network expanding further. Asking airlines to remain active opens a myriad of new networks for infection. Yet at the same time, if airlines begin to cancel flights to the area than the number of health workers that can get to the area (or out of the area) goes down significantly. The scenario could be played out using game theory, ultimately showing that at this point in time, while the contagion can still be stopped, its of greater benefit for the world to keep the airlines up and running. This may not be the case in a month because as some sources are saying the rapidly spreading disease that’s taken so many lives already could expand its networks to half a million people by the end of January.


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September 2014