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During infectious disease outbreaks, personal freedom comes at a price: the welfare of the public as a whole, a new study finds.
In the research, scientists investigated whether, in the event of an outbreak, people should be allowed to move about freely or if authorities should enforce travel restrictions to halt the disease's spread. "What we were trying to understand better is how actions, in terms of routing humans, could affect the spread of disease," said study researcher Ruben Juanes, a geoscientist at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. [The 5 Most Likely Real-Life Contagions] The findings suggest that highly connected regions of dense commuter traffic carry the gravest consequences of allowing free movement.
The researchers borrowed a concept from game theory known as the "price of anarchy," which they defined as "the loss of welfare due to selfish rerouting compared with the policy-driven coordination."
Not all areas would benefit equally from such restrictions, the findings showed. Places that had high traffic both within and among counties saw the most benefit from restricting travel. For example, counties near a major interstate highway, such as I-80 from New York to San Francisco or I-95 from the Canadian border to Miami, had a higher cost of anarchy — meaning travel restrictions would be helpful. By contrast, low traffic areas did not benefit much from travel restrictions, so their cost of anarchy was lower, the model showed.