Bugs on a Plane: How Your Flight Could Be Making You Ill

Airplane cabin with passengers
Photo by AlxeyPnferov/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

by Global health security correspondent and Anne Gulland, The Telegraph, March 19, 2018

Do you worry about catching a bug on a plane? According to new research you should.

Scientists have modeled the way bugs are spread on flights and found that it's not just your fellow passengers who could make you ill but the cabin crew.

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The study shows that an infected air steward presents a greater risk to anyone sitting in aisle or middle seats than those squeezed next to the window.

However, if you are seated within a row or two seats of an infected passenger you have an 80% chance of catching a bug no matter which type of seat you are in.

Researchers at Emory University in the United States used data on passenger and crew movements to model the likelihood of passengers catching a respiratory disease during a flight.

With over 3 billion airline passengers annually, the inflight transmission of infectious diseases is an important global health concern.

Over a dozen cases of inflight transmission of serious infections have been documented, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and swine flu (H1N1).

The main transmission route for diseases such as influenza are respiratory droplets that are propelled short distances when an infectious person sneezes, coughs, talks, or even breathes.

The researchers observed passengers and crew on 10 transcontinental flights during the US flu season and found that a sick member of cabin crew was likely to infect an average of 4.6 passengers per flight, with those sitting in the middle or aisle seats at greatest risk. 

Risk of infection on flights

A sick passenger posed a far lower risk to their fellow travellers and would, on average, infect less than one person per flight, as long as they were sitting more than a row or two seats away.

The researchers worked out that because travellers generally had less contacts with their fellow passengers it was only those sitting close to someone coughing and spluttering who risked infection. However, anyone sitting within a row or two seats of a poorly passenger has an 80 per cent of picking up an infection, the researchers found. 

Vicki Stover Hertzberg, lead author of the study and professor at the Center for Data Science at Emory University, said that while cabin crew posed a risk to passengers they were more likely to infect one another.

"They spend a lot of time together in the galley and when they are spending time in service they move quickly through the cabin," she said.

She added: "Flight attendants are less likely to fly when they're ill and, if they do, are more likely to take a cough drop to contain how they expel things because they know the risk". 

She said that to avoid picking up bugs passengers should wash their hands and avoid touching their face.

"As a courtesy to fellow passengers anyone who feels ill should observe good hand hygiene, avert their face if they cough and turn their air on as that will trap the particles and send them quickly to the floor, minimising transmission," she said. 

Richard Dawood, specialist in travel medicine at Fleet Street Clinic in London, said airlines should not allow anyone to travel who was obviously ill. 

“It’s a contravention of airline regulations for someone who’s showing overt signs of infection to be allowed to travel in the first place,” he said.

He said the best way travellers could protect themselves was by asking someone to wear a face mask.

“The ideal thing to do would be to get the person who’s ill to wear a face mask. You could escalate it to captain level and say, here’s a person who’s a danger to other passengers and they should wear a face mask. However, you could end up with a pretty nasty incident if someone digs in their heels,” he said.

Infection | Bugs on a plane

Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Find out more

 

This article was written by Global health security correspondent and Anne Gulland from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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