Can Flying Really Increase Your Chances of Catching the Swine Flu?
Maybe you haven’t heard, but the world is in something of a tizzy about Influenza A (H1N1), the virus that, up until last week, was known as Swine Flu. At the heart of the public’s anxiety seems to be a fear of travel: many companies have cancelled trips to Mexico, the suspected origin of the pandemic, and several airlines have sharply cut their flights there. But a story from CNN today focuses not on why people should avoid travel, but how to do it safely. Just over a month ago, weeks before H1N1 exploded, I did a similar story that asked whether flying really increases your chances of getting sick. As it turns out, CNN’s expert, Mark Gendreau, M.D., agrees with mine: you’re not necessarily at greater risk while on an airplane. The consensus: the in-flight ventilation system is design to compartmentalize the air, so that germs don’t travel far. He added that germs tended to spread farther when the ventilation systems were turned off. In other words, you’re more likely to catch something while waiting for take off or disembarking than while you’re in the air. Indeed, an industrial hygienist with the National Institute for Occupational and Safety Health (NIOSH) I spoke with found that the concentration of bacteria actually increased while the plane is on the ground, and the ventilation system is supplemented by an auxiliary system on the ground. The rest is common sense: carry antibacterial hand sanitizer, and wash your hands regularly. My experts were skeptical about the benefits of face masks, but Dr. Gendreau, CNN’s medical expert, says that back in 2003, wearing a face mask was associated with fewer instances of SARS. That doesn’t mean people suspected to have H1N1 should be allowed to fly; it’s bad for personal health, and it can’t be good for public health either. But to make airplanes the lynch pin for public hysteria over the so-called Swine Flu? That’s ridiculous. I’d venture to say what happens when you get off the plane (or before you board) is just as– if not more– important. Earlier: Flying Germ Farms!