April 27, 2009
Posted: 11:14 PM ET
By Mark Gendreau, M.D./NY Times Blog
The novel infectious agent implicated in the current swine flu outbreak — comprised of genetic material from pigs, birds and humans — has shown the world once again the role air travel plays in rapidly spreading infectious outbreaks. The reported swine flu cases outside of Mexico likely came from infected tourists traveling home from Mexico on commercial aircraft or their close contacts. As Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg once wrote: “The microbe that felled one child in a distant continent yesterday can reach yours today and seed a global pandemic tomorrow.”
Are there ways to protect oneself against the spread of swine flu when flying?
Because the passenger cabin airflow is compartmentalized into several sections, risk of on-board transmission of infection is mainly restricted to individuals with either close personal contact with an infected and contagious passenger or seated within two rows of a contagious passenger. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the opportunity to select who we are going to be seated next to, so exposure is pure chance.
Here are some measures you can take to help protect yourself during air travel during this outbreak:
Postpone travel if you are sick. Although it is recommended you postpone travel until you are no longer infectious, in reality this recommendation is not commonly followed by passengers, especially since few travelers purchase travel insurance. In fact, it’s a good idea for all passengers to postpone any nonessential air travel during times of a national or international health emergency, such as the current swine flu outbreak, especially to countries where the outbreak is large.
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