The next time an illness like SARS threatens to sicken large numbers of people around the world, airports may have a new tool to help them prevent a pandemic. Transportation officials and public health experts are pilot testing a Web site that calculates the risk that passengers coming off any given flight are carrying an emerging infectious disease. With funding from the Transportation Research Board, part of the National Research Council, a team of investigators at the University of Florida used airline traffic figures, disease risk maps and climate data to come up with its online vector-borne disease airline importation risk (VBD-AIR) tool.

Officials can enter the name of the airport they are tracking, the month in question and the disease to be targeted—current choices are all mosquito-borne and include dengue, malaria, yellow fever and chikungunya, which was detected in Florida a few years ago. The result is a network of lines, color-coded by disease risk, that represent flights to the destination airport from all parts of the world.

If a passenger comes into an airport needing medical assistance or ends up at a hospital near the airport, officials need to be able to assess the situation quickly before it gets worse, says Andrew Tatem, an assistant professor in the University of Florida's Emerging Pathogens Institute and the school's department of geography. The VBD-AIR database might help prioritize which travelers coming into an airport should be screened, based on their risk of exposure and the disease's virulence, adds Tatem, one of the researchers who helped to develop the VBD-AIR program, which could also serve as a preventive measure by warning travelers of areas to avoid.

The researchers plan to expand the program to track infectious diseases such as leishmaniasis (found in certain areas of South America, Africa and the Middle East and transmitted by sand fly bites), Rift Valley fever (discovered in Kenya but now has spread to other areas of Africa and the Middle East), and Chagas disease (most commonly caused by insects found in South and Central America).