Flu Germs on a Plane

Posted on September 12, 2006

Airplanes are the perfect vehicle for spreading flu germs, especially bird flu. A new report states that when air travel dropped by over 30% after 9/11, the flu season was delayed that year.
While there is no way to stop a pandemic completely, the researchers at Children's Hospital Boston said restricting air travel could delay the spread of a deadly virus and buy some time to prepare vaccines, drugs and take other measures.

"For the first time we've been able to show, using real data, that air travel spreads the flu, suggesting that reducing the number of air passengers might ameliorate a flu pandemic," said John Brownstein of the Children's Hospital Informatics Program at the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program, who led the study.

Dr. Kenneth Mandl, who worked on the study, said the team realized they had a "natural experiment" when air traffic fell after the Sept. 11 attacks. The number of people flying internationally fell by 27 percent to 3.5 million passengers in September of 2001 from 4.9 million passengers in September 2000. Mandl and Brownstein had been trying to map the spread of flu. Flu season usually starts in the Northern Hemisphere in September or October, and peaks between January and March. They looked at data from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the years between 1996 and 2005. "When we first looked at our data we noticed that the 2001-2002 flu season was highly aberrant," Mandl said. "At first we thought it was a problem with the data, but then we realized we were seeing the shadow of September 11th cast upon the influenza season."

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"The number of airline passengers flying in the United States determines how quickly influenza spreads within the United States," Brownstein said in a telephone interview. "The more domestic travel, the faster the spread of flu, and the more inbound international travel, the earlier the influenza season begins." Influenza is caused by a variety of viruses and usually the mix changes slightly from year to year.
We knew it: that jerk sitting behind you that's coughing and sneezing all through your flight is probably carrying deadly bird flu. Or at least a nasty cold virus. You don't think airport security will look at us strangely if we board the plane wearing a mask, gloves and carrying a bottle of disinfectant spray, do you? Oh wait, no liquids. How about a jumbo box of anti-bac wipes and a gas mask?