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An Expert Explains: Why airports make you ill and what to do about it

Plane travel is often blamed for making travellers ill, but a new study suggests that the germs may actually be closer to the ground.

Written by Swati Piramal |
Updated: March 21, 2020 8:15:36 pm
An Expert Explains: Why airports make you ill and what to do about it Coronavirus and airports: A lone traveller checks her mobile telephone after collecting her baggage from a carousel in Denver International Airport on Friday, March 20, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo: David Zalubowski)

In a study published in the University of Cyprus just days before China’s coronavirus was first identified, researchers found that ramping up awareness of and access to handwashing facilities at 10 of the world’s most “influential” airports could reduce the spread of a respiratory pandemic by 37 per cent. This figure could be as high as 69 per cent if applied to all airports worldwide. Airports and airplanes are highly infectious because they are close, confined areas with large, mobile populations,” said the report.

“Viruses are spread through body fluids, so keeping hands clean at major transport hubs is central to control spread.” The study, published in Risk Analysis Journal at the end of December, identified 10 major air hubs where improved hand cleansing facilities would have a disproportionate impact on stopping disease transmission. These airports have a high volume of travellers but more importantly see planes depart to a wide range of locations across the globe every day. London Heathrow is on the list, along with Los Angeles, Dubai and Amsterdam Schiphol.

Airports in developing countries across Africa have introduced hand cleansing dispensers at strategic arrival and departure points to combat the spread of Ebola and other viral diseases,

Security trays are an obvious source of risk of coronavirus. They are shared, used again and again are non porous, and contain high touch plastic surfaces of mobile phones, passports, belts, pens etc.

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Plane travel is often blamed for making travellers ill, but a new study suggests that the germs may actually be closer to the ground. Tests on plastic luggage trays at airport security found that half were harbouring at least one respiratory disease such as the common cold or influenza.

The communal trays, which often contain shoes and belts which are touched frequently but rarely washed, as well as detritus from pockets such as used tissues, were found to have more germs than even toilet areas. The study was carried out by a team of experts from the University of Nottingham and the Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare who swabbed a variety of surfaces at Helsinki-Vantaa airport in Finland during the winter of 2016 to find out how pandemics might spread. The swabbed trays tested positive for rhinovirus and influenza virus. Airport trays are rarely disinfected and objects handled with the hand by hundreds of people.

Coronavirus pandemic: Travellers in protective clothing prepare for their flight at Heathrow Airport in London, Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (AP Photo: Frank Augstein)

People can help to minimise contagion by hygienic hand washing and coughing into a handkerchief, tissue or sleeve at all times but especially in public places. These simple precautions can help prevent pandemics and are most important in crowded areas like airports that have a high volume of people travelling to and from many different parts of the world.

Also read | Why the coronavirus pandemic could kill off many airlines

Scientists at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, earlier this year found that eight out of 10 people who sit next to, in front of or behind a sick person will also become ill. They found the best way to avoid catching germs is to get a window seat and stay there for the duration of the flight. Middle seats were rated second-safest, while the aisles were most as people walking up and down may spread germs.

The studies above offer scientific evidence on the spread of disease at airports. For Indian airports which are extremely crowded the old way of reusing plastic trays in the security line must be changed. Security trays must be disinfected regularly and hand santisers offered as well as access to handwashing facilities. This could slow the spread of the dreaded coronavirus.

Dr Swati Piramal is vice-chairman of Piramal Enterprises and an Alumnus Harvard School of Public Health.

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