How to avoid coronavirus on flights: forget the masks, says the best doctor in the airline
The virus cannot survive for a long time in the seats or armrests, so physical contact with another person carries the highest risk of infection on a flight, said David Power, a doctor and medical advisor at the International Air Transport Association. Masks and gloves do a better job of spreading mistakes than stopping them, he said. As concerns about the magnitude of the outbreak increase, United Airlines Holdings Inc. airlines to Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. have scrapped thousands of flights to China. Here is an edited transcript of an interview with Power. IATA represents approximately 290 airlines and more than 80% of the world’s air traffic.
- Is there a risk of getting contaminated with the virus in an airplane?
The risk of getting a serious viral infection on a plane is low. The air supply to a modern airplane is very different from that of a cinema or an office building. Air is a combination of fresh air and recirculated air, about half each. The recirculated air passes through filters of the same type that we use in surgical operating rooms. It is guaranteed that the supplied air will be 99.97% (or better) free of viruses and other particles. Therefore, the risk, if it exists, does not come from the supplied air. It comes from other people.
- What are the chances of contracting the virus by touching the seats, the armrest or any of the objects on an airplane?
Viruses and other microbes like to live on living surfaces like us. Just shaking someone’s hand will be a much greater risk than a dry surface that has no biological material. Survival of viruses on surfaces is not excellent, so it is believed that normal cleaning, and then additional cleaning in case someone is found to be contagious, is the appropriate procedure.
- What is important if you are on a plane to make sure you don’t get infected?
Hand hygiene: because contrary to what people think, hands are the way in which these viruses spread more efficiently. The top of the list is frequent hand washing, hand disinfection or both. Avoid touching your face. If you cough or sneeze, it is important to cover your face with a sleeve. Better yet, carefully disposable handkerchief, and then disinfect your hands later. Washing your hands and drying is the best procedure. When that is not easy to do, alcohol-based disinfectant is a good second option.
- Does wearing masks and gloves help prevent infections?
First, masks. There is very limited evidence of benefit, if any, in a casual situation. The masks are useful for those who are not well to protect other people from them. But wearing a mask all the time will be ineffective. It will allow viruses to be transmitted around it, through it and, worse, if it gets wet, it will stimulate the growth of viruses and bacteria. The gloves are probably even worse, because people put on gloves and then touch everything they would have touched with their hands. Therefore, it becomes another way to transfer microorganisms. And inside the gloves, your hands get hot and sweat, which is a really good environment for microbes to grow.
- Is closing the answer to contain the spread of the virus?
One thing that has changed in the world is the ability of infections to travel quickly from one place to another and it is true that aviation is part of that. At the same time, aviation is essential to deal with outbreaks like this. And this is the reason why we have collaboration with the World Health Organization and IATA that has been in effect for several years. If countries simply close during disease outbreaks, as happened in West Africa with Ebola, that can make things worse. During that outbreak, the country fought, the WHO could not enter its people, they could not obtain biological samples. The economic impact of being turned off made things worse. General travel bans can make things worse. It can encourage people to travel in secret, which means you lose control.
- When can we say with certainty that the worst may have happened?
The number of cases has continued to increase by around 16% to 20% each day. Until we reach the point where those numbers are decreasing, we could not say that we turn the corner.