Airplane Cabins and Your Health

30 08 2012

Do you remember SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)? It popped up in China in 2002 and spread to more than 25 countries before we could blink.

PKIDs landed a group of disease prevention educators in China just as the world became aware of this outbreak that would rapidly become an epidemic. It was coincidence, of course. The trip had been planned for months.

But, our proximity to the SARS outbreak was a reminder to us of how efficient air travel is at spreading germs.

In 2009, there were 2.5 billion airline passengers and that number is expected to increase to 3.3 billion by 2014. That’s a lot of sneezing, coughing, and just plain touching of armrests, overheads, and other surfaces going on in small spaces.

Dr. Alexandra Mangili and Dr. Mark Gendreau wrote a piece for the Lancet in 2005 that talks about the mechanics of disease transmission in an airplane. It’s very good, if you have a few minutes to read it.

They explain air flow patterns and how much air is recirculated (50% and that’s through filters). Turns out, air does not flow the length of the plane, but rather in sections or pockets along the width of the plane. Still an efficient method of disease transmission for airborne and large droplet transmission, but not the only way germs are spread onboard.

According to the article, the most common infections on aircraft have been via the fecal-oral route through contaminated food, although that has diminished in the last few years, possibly due to prepackaged food products and more care in the prepping and handling of food.

Mosquitos, a common vector for diseases such as dengue and malaria, often hitch rides on airplanes. Mangili and Gendreau point out that, “Many cases of malaria occurring in and around airports all over the world in people who had not travelled to endemic areas, known as airport malaria, is evidence that malaria-carrying mosquitoes can be imported on aircraft.”

The cabins of airplanes cannot be thoroughly disinfected between flights. Many times, a plane lands, passengers disembark, and more passengers are seated within 30 minutes. Think of all the droplets of goo left behind that the cleaning crew cannot remove, and the many surfaces that can’t be disinfected.

Keeping one’s hands clean throughout the flight will go a long way toward preventing transmission, and staying up-to-date on your vaccinations for your home country and your destination. As for masks, the authors say, “Although masks play a crucial part in infection control in health care settings, their use is unproven in disease control within the aircraft cabin.” But they do recommend masking and isolating someone suspected of having SARS.

The CDC has quite a bit more to say about air travel and travelers’ health in general, if you’re looking for more details.

How do you prevent infections during air travel? What do you do to protect yourself? We’d love to hear! Please share your tips in the comment section.

By Trish Parnell
Image courtesy of WHO





A Mother’s Legacy

25 06 2012

I would like to tell you about my mother and all mothers like her who suffered through the loss of a child from an infectious disease. Raising a family in the hills of Kentucky, where most people were too poor to pay for the little, if any, medical help available, my mother struggled to keep her family healthy.

When one of her babies became seriously ill, my mother and her parents did everything they could to try and help her. Despite their efforts, my mother watched her child, Patsy Lynn, die from whooping cough. While making arrangements for Patsy’s funeral my mother learned that another one of her children was gravely ill. Both children were buried on the same day, in the same casket, in the same grave next to my mother’s church.

After the death of two children, my family was able to relocate to the Cincinnati area where medical attention was more readily available. We all had our vaccines as my mother was determined not to lose another child to unseen viruses and she insisted on washing and boiling everything that we touched.

I lived through the effect the loss had upon my mother’s life. The fear of disease was so real then, but many of us today forget what it was like to live in a time when diseases like measles, polio and smallpox were so much more common and deadly.

I remember the time that I was not allowed to play with a friend because her mother had been sent to the “TB hospital” and I vividly remember the Sunday that we spent standing in the long lines to receive our sugar cubes laced with the polio vaccine.

During the early ’60s, I remember being put to bed in a dark room when it was thought I might have the measles. Most of all, I’ll never forget that several of my teachers wore braces because of the effects of polio.

My mother tried her best to prevent us from succumbing to any disease which may shorten our lives, so I’m thankful that when she died of cancer in 1982 she did not know that I had somehow contracted the hepatitis B virus.

In June 1995, I was diagnosed with hepatitis B about a week before my 25th wedding anniversary. A doctor told my husband that I had a sexually transmitted disease and that he should be tested and vaccinated. What the doctor failed to tell us at the time was that this hepatitis could be spread in many other ways. I had complete trust in my husband and, thank God he had faith and trust in me, so this suggestion of sexually promiscuity did not harm our marriage.

Within the week we were informed that my husband tested negative, as did my children, who have all been vaccinated.

I have tried for years to find out where I got the virus. Could it have been from my mother who died of liver cancer? Did I get it in grade school, or from dental work, surgeries? Did I get it in one of the hospitals or clinics where I have worked as an interpreter? Did I get it from a child who ran into me on the playground, or from the little girl who bit me while I was working in the Cincinnati Public Schools?

The only thing I can be sure of is that I did not get hepatitis B from sexual contact, drug use or tattoos. However, I have now arrived at a place of peace in my life by accepting the fact that I will never know the path of transmission—and I no longer search for that answer.

And this is my mother’s legacy to me: protect your children the best you can.

By Barbra Anne Malapelli Haun