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Albuquerque Student's Project Shows That Schools May Drive Bird Flu Pandemic

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
    INDIANAPOLIS— Blame the teenagers.
    If a flu pandemic sweeps the world, Laura Glass thinks it will be young people who do much of the spreading. And the best way to halt the disease's spread, according to Glass, is simple: Keep the kids home from school.
    Lest you think this is some anti-teen hysteria, Glass has the data to back it up. Plus, she's a teenager.
    A 15-year-old Albuquerque High School sophomore, Glass is one of 24 students representing New Mexico at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
    Nearly 1,500 students have gathered this week at the Indiana Convention Center to compete for $1.5 million in scholarships and prizes based on their work.
    Glass's work involved the creation of a virtual town of 10,000 people— a computerized world where she could experiment on the spread of a disease such as the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed an estimated 50 million to 100 million people worldwide.
    To try to cope with the possibility of a similar outbreak today, public health officials around the world are looking at vaccination or anti-viral drugs. But there are problems with that approach, Glass said Monday.
    Even if the drugs were available, it might be difficult to distribute them in a timely fashion, she said. And for poor countries, drugs might not be affordable at all.
    So Glass tackled the basic way the disease spreads— from one human to the next. She built a "social network model," a computer simulation of whom people come into close contact with on a daily basis.
    Family members are able, for example, to infect one another, as are co-workers, students in schools and people in social settings.
    That's where the teenagers come in. In a typical day, according to Glass, an average teenager could come into close enough contact with 140 people to have a chance of giving them a flu— the most contact of any group.
    All school-age children would be at risk of spreading the disease, of course, but middle and high school students, who have numerous classes each day, come in contact with the most people.
    In her computer simulation, Glass had adults bring the disease into the community— perhaps returning from a trip. They'd infect their children at home. "From there," she said, "it spreads like crazy, once it gets in the teens in the schools."
    In one simulation in her virtual town of 10,000, about half the people got the disease if nothing was done.
    The simple way to halt the spread of the disease is to limit the number of contacts people have. Quarantining people is hard. "If you went out and told everyone in your community to stay home, there's a large percentage that wouldn't do that," she said.
    Glass found that a simpler step— closing the schools— had an impressive effect.
    Instead of 5,000 people getting sick, the number was reduced to 500.
    Glass and her peers are in Indianapolis all week. Judges will review their projects today and Wednesday, then announce the awards and scholarships Thursday and Friday.