I recently met someone who wanted to cut back on air travel. No, it wasn’t fear of flying — which goes by the names of aerophobia, aviatophobia, aviophobia or pteromerhanophobia in medicalese — that prompted him. It was fear of getting infected, he said, “with a disease with an unpronouncable name or more letters in its nomenclature than the English alphabet”. He was referring to a 40-year-old Dutch woman who travelled to Uganda last month, had a close encounter with a bat and came back home with Marburg Haemorrhagic Fever, the first case reported in recorded Dutch medical history.
“It spreads through close contact. She could have been sitting next to me on a flight or waiting room at Schiphol. Most people haven’t realised that air travel is a bigger threat to health than unsafe sex and trans fats. You don’t have to do anything to get sick except sit in cramped conditions waiting to get infected. A man coughed in my face last week without covering his mouth. I’ve been lucky so far, but I don’t want to keep risking my life unnecessarily,” he said, inhaling deeply from his Lucky Strike .
He’s right, of course. Not about air travel being bigger health risk than unsafe sex, but the need for passengers to observe basic hygiene because airlines can do just so much to ensure air travel remains safe. All airlines follow international health standards of indoor air quality. In fact, the quality of the air on board commercial airliners is far better than most offices and commercial buildings in many countries and most of us can safely spend a large part of our lives in international air space than on the ground. The trouble starts when travellers on long-haul flights — over eight hours — get infected with diseases such as tuberculosis if they come in close contact with another passenger with the disease. Microbes thrive in the in the cramped and humid environs of airplanes, and this, coupled with the immunity dropping because of the sudden change in altitude and temperature, can put even healthy people at some risk of infection.
More than getting infected while flying, you need to worry about unwanted diseases you may pick up along with tacky souvenirs on jaunts abroad. Over the past two months, P. falciparum malaria — the deadliest form resposible for almost all malarial deaths — as been reported in tourists to Bahamas, where malaria doesn’t occur because of a very low prevalence of Anopheles mosquitoes that spread the disease. Polio cropped up over the past two years in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Congo and Namibia that had been polio-free for over four years. Kenya had worse luck, with the disease being detected a decade ater the country ebcame free of polio. Last year, an Indian tourist infected 200 people in north Italy with the mosquito-bourne chikungunya, its first outbreak in Europe. One person died.
Infections apart, a big threat to health is death induced by deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which occurs when a blood clot formed in the leg breaks off and travels through the bloodstream to the lungs, blocking the pulmonary artery and causing a heart attack. Travellers over 50 years or those under 50 with one or more risk factors for deep vein thrombosis (such as obesity, large varicose veins, congestive heart failure, pregnancy, recent major surgery, use of hormone replacement therapy, or oral contraceptives) are advised to wear below-the-knee compression stockings when lying for over eight hours.
Incidentally, my new friend did get a upper respiratory tract infection and blames the coughing passenger. He now plans to step into an airplane armed with several World Health Organisation-approved N95 face masks to keep the bugs at bay.