Researchers' plan to track disease: follow 'Where's George' cash trail

Associated Press
Published January 26, 2006

LOS ANGELES - Scientists think they may have found a better way to predict how diseases like a global flu epidemic could spread: follow the money.

Using the popular "Where's George?" Web site that tracks U.S. dollars, researchers developed a mathematical tool that could help track an infectious disease.

"We are optimistic that this will drastically improve predictions about the geographical spread of epidemics," said Theo Geisel of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, which developed the tool along with the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Details appear in today's issue of the journal Nature.

Fears of a global flu epidemic have risen from the spread of bird flu, a virus that has killed more than 70 people in Asia and Europe since 2003, but which is so far spreading mostly among poultry.

Experts say if the bird flu begins spreading among people, travelers are the most likely way it will become a worldwide threat.

Researchers came up with the idea of studying travelers by tracing how money circulates.

In the study, scientists traced the whereabouts of nearly half a million dollar bills on www.wheresgeorge.com bill-tracking site.

Users register their money and then spend it. They can monitor the money's movement online.

Researchers found that most of the money (57 percent) traveled between 30 miles and 500 miles over about nine months in the U.S.

The scientists found that the money followed a predictable pattern. The method could be used to create more realistic disease models that track the spread of germs and perhaps prevent outbreaks.