Traveling by air can spread infections all over the world
“Travel safe, travel far, travel wide, and travel often,” says Nomadic Matt, the American quitting his career to explore the globe and write about it. He also helps others do the same.
There’s a downside to all this travel due to the astronomical number of people traveling from one end of the globe to the other, mostly via plane.
There’s a risk of passengers spreading infectious diseases as well as resistant microorganisms (superbugs) all over the world.
However, our recent study into the health advice offered by the in-flight magazines shows passengers are not given any information on how to reduce the spread of disease-causing illnesses.
Are we concerned about the role air travel has in spreading infectious illnesses? What can we do to prevent it?
Read more: Remote village to the metropolis: how globalization spreads infectious diseases.
How big is the risk?
Cheap airfares and a variety of economic and social circumstances have made global air travel more popular than ever before. As per the Australian Department of Transport, infrastructure, city, and regional growth, the number of passengers who flew on an internationally scheduled flight in the year 2018 was 41.575 million. However, the International Air Transport Association projects that passenger demand will rise to 8.2 billion by 2037.
There are numerous instances of infections spread by international flights. For example, the World Health Organization documented the transmission of tuberculosis (TB) via commercial planes during long-haul flights in the 1980s.
The research published in 2011 exposes the spreading of flu through two international flights transcontinental from May 2009.
Read more: Health Check: are you up to date with your vaccinations?
More recently, the current global outbreak of measles in many countries, including the Philippines and the United States, gave rise to the risk of transmission during international travel. In a recent case, a baby too young to be vaccinated who had measles returned from Manilla in the Philippines to Sydney, exposing travellers on that flight to infection.
Then there is the risk of transmitting antimicrobial-resistant organisms that cause disease, such as multi-drug resistant TB.
Recently, patients from Victoria as well as New South Wales were identified as being infected with an invasive fungus that is resistant to drugs Candida Auris that was acquired from abroad.
Read more: Explainer: what is Candida auris and who is at risk?
One studyestimates that over 300 million travellers visit high-risk areas, such as the western Pacific, Southeast Asia and Eastern Mediterranean, each year worldwide, and more than 20% return as new carriers of resistant organisms.
These tourist destinations, in addition to and especially the Middle East, have high prevalence of drugs-resistant organisms.
How can this be happening?
Aircraft transport huge numbers of people across the globe quickly. However, what differentiates them from trains and buses is that the passengers are situated close to each other, in tight areas, for a prolonged duration. This can increase the risk of spreading diseases.
The passengers interact with highly tactile surfaces, like tray tables, chairs, headsets, seats, and handles. We sneeze, cough, and rub our hands on multiple surfaces many times during flights, with a limited opportunity to wash our hands using soap or water.
Many diseases, like diarrhea and gastroenteritis, are carried out by touching and contact.