It’s very difficult to get an intuitive feeling for how the flu spreads – but thankfully, the good people at the UK Clinical Virology Network have put together a flash game to help understand the process. The premise of the game is simple – you play the role of an infected person trying to infect a certain percentage of the poor, unassuming population as quickly as possible. If you have the time, I recommend reading through the introduction to each of the games (it’ll pop up when you start to play). The authors explain the basics of influenza biology in an entertaining and readable way, and they avoid dumbing down the subject matter. You can find the game here.
There are a few problems with the game – the transmission model that it uses is very simplistic (essentially, it assumes that if an infected person crosses paths with an uninfected person, the uninfected person will get the flu) and just a bit frightening – it would probably be much harder to catch the flu in the real world. What I really like about that game is the jump in infections that you can produce by moving an infected student into the school. This increase in the number of cases would be seen in real life. Think about it this way – if you are infected with the flu, and have a 10% chance of spreading it to people that you meet, for each individual person the odds are pretty low. But if you put yourself in a situation where you are surrounded by 100 susceptible people, you’re likely to infect about 10 of them.
I played around with the game for a bit, and my high score for the “Seasonal Pandemic” version was 9.4 days – it would appear that epidemiologic training is good for something…
On a more serious note, you can find more information about H1N1 at the flu.gov site (link).