AIRCRAFT: Are they a breeding ground for germs?

We’ve all probably had the thought while sitting on a plane. There’s someone sneezing away a few seats back, and you know that, thanks to the canned air system onboard, you’re bound to catch whatever he’s got.

And guess what? You’d be right to think that. Researchers have tracked the progress of a SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus carried by a man who was on a three-hour flight from Hong Kong to Beijing. Of the 120 people on board, including attendants and pilots, 22 developed the disease within 10 days after the flight, and the flight had been the only time before or since when they’d been exposed to the virus.

Of the 22, eight were seated in the three rows in front of the SARS carrier, and the rest were seated randomly around the ‘plane.

The research team, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Thailand, also monitored the progress of the disease on two other flights that also included known SARS cases. One flight carried four confirmed cases, and yet only one other person was infected, and the third flight had one case of early stage SARS and no other infections were reported. In the last case, the SARS carrier had not yet developed any symptoms.

Researchers believe that the evidence suggests that people with viral infections can pass them on while traveling on a ‘plane, and that something should be done to reduce infection.

Quite what that should be is not specified, unfortunately. But if we are prepared to remove passengers from ‘planes, or cancel flights altogether, on some remote possibility of a terrorist outrage, surely it would not be unreasonable for people to disclose if they have recently been diagnosed with a viral infection, and for them not to fly until it has passed. After all, there’s a 20 per cent chance you’ll catch it.

(Source: New England Journal of Medicine, 2003; 349: 2416-22).

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Written by What Doctors Don't Tell You

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