Sunday, May 3, 2009

Swine flu implications for travel

Reports during the past few days of commerical planes being diverted to alternate airports, passengers being quarantined, hotels being cordoned off, and of course Vice President Joe Biden's absurd comments have raised concerns among people planning travel. 

Here is an attempt to separate some of the facts from fiction.

Flu, including swine flu, is transmitted by droplets. Unless you are within about three feet of an infected and contagious individual, the risk is relatively small. The primary guidance for managing a suspected sick passenger on an airplane is to try to move other passengers so that there is nobody within 3-6 feet of the individual, to provide a surgical mask for the ill passenger (to prevent their sneezes or coughs from infecting others), and for flight crews to use disposable gloves when handling possibly infected materials from the passenger. The crew also has to alert U.S. health officials prior to landing, who are to make the appropriate arrangements for medical personnel to meet the plane on arrival. The CDC has traveler quarantine stations in about 20 cities, so diverting an aircraft would seem to be an unlikely -- and very costly -- event.

The CDC also has very specific recommendations for cleaning airplanes, trains, cabs, and other transit vehicles during an outbreak. The cleaning focuses on areas where a suspected ill passenger or crew member was located. On airplanes, cleaning with a disinfectant is recommended for all surfaces such as seat belt latches, armrests, tray tables, windowshades, and passenger controls such as lighting and audio.

The flu virus can survive outside the human body for more than 24 hours, but the CDC says that it is highly doubtful that sufficient amounts to be infectious would be present on any surfaces on an airplane or other conveyance after many hours.

If you are traveling, the most practical advice from the CDC is to carry a pocket-sized alcohol gel so that you can keep your hands clean throughout your flight or other travel. Although this does not take the place of thorough hand washing with hot water and soap, it is a very effective interim measure.

For more information, visit the CDC's Travel Notices page, which is frequently updated.

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