BACKGROUND: The transmission of infectious diseases is dependent on the amount and nature of contacts between infectious and healthy individuals. Confined and crowded environments that people visit in their day-to-day life (such as town squares, business districts, transport hubs, etc) can act as hot-spots for spreading disease. In this study we explore the link between the use of public transport and the spread of airborne infections in urban environments.
METHODS: We study a large number of journeys on the London Underground, which is known to be particularly crowded at certain times. We use publically available Oyster card data (the electronic ticket used for public transport in Greater London), to infer passengers' routes on the underground network. In order to estimate the spread of a generic airborne disease in each station, we use and extend an analytical microscopic model that was initially designed to study people moving in a corridor.
RESULTS: Comparing our results with influenza-like illnesses (ILI) data collected by Public Health England (PHE) in London boroughs, shows a correlation between the use of public transport and the spread of ILI. Specifically, we show that passengers departing from boroughs with higher ILI rates have higher number of contacts when travelling on the underground. Moreover, by comparing our results with other demographic key factors, we are able to discuss the role that the Underground plays in the spread of airborne infections in the English capital.
CONCLUSIONS: Our study suggests a link between public transport use and infectious diseases transmission and encourages further research into that area. Results could be used to inform the development of non-pharmacological interventions that can act on preventing instead of curing infections and are, potentially, more cost-effective.