Study explores the risk of becoming ill

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According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, people who fly on planes while contagious can infect others, but the risk is mainly to those seated next to them or in the adjacent row.

Researchers at Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, US, studied 10 transcontinental flights and carefully tracked passenger movements to estimate the likelihood of common respiratory infections like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and influenza.

The study said that passengers seated within one row and within two seats laterally of the infected passenger had an 80-per-cent or greater probability of becoming infected, while for all other passengers, the probability of infection was less than three per cent.

According to the researchers, infectious crew members could infect an average of 4.6 passengers per flight. The study said it is therefore important that flight attendants do not fly when they are ill.

Swabs for respiratory viruses on tray tables and seatbelts showed no trace of viruses, which suggests that most illness is spread by sneezing and coughing.

“I think everyone knows that travellers often experience the onset of a cold within a couple of days after flying and they naturally connect the two,” said Michael Grosso, Chair of Paediatrics at Northwell Health’s Huntington Hospital in Huntington, New York. “The bad news is that travel websites have no option which says, ‘click here to find a seat at least three away from an influenza sufferer.’”