As concern mounts about the scale of the outbreak, carriers from United Airlines Holdings Inc. to Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. have scrapped thousands of flights to China. Below is an interview that Bloomberg conducted with David Powell, a physician and medical adviser to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents about 290 airlines and more than 80% of global air traffic. This doctor says that people wearing masks and gloves on flights actually do a better job of spreading bugs than stopping them. So instead, follow the advice below.
Q: Is there a risk of becoming contaminated with the virus on a plane?
A: The risk of catching a serious viral infection on an aircraft is low. The air supply to a modern airliner is very different from a movie theater or an office building. The air is a combination of fresh air and recirculated air, about half each. The recirculated air goes through filters of the exact same type that we use in surgical operating theaters. That supplied air is guaranteed to be 99.97% (or better) free of viruses and other particles. So the risk, if there is one, does not come from the supplied air. It comes from other people.
Q: What are the chances of getting the virus by touching the seats, armrest or any of the objects on a plane?
A: Viruses and other microbes like to live on living surfaces like us. Just shaking hands with somebody will be a greater risk by far than some dry surface that has no biological material on it. The survival of viruses on surfaces isn’t great, so it’s believed that normal cleaning, and then the extra cleaning in the event that someone was discovered to be contagious, is the appropriate procedure. Will people stop getting together inside an airplane? I would respond by asking: Will I stop going to the movies, or sports games, or concerts or conferences? I don’t think so.
Q: What’s important if you are on a plane to ensure you don’t get infected?
A: Hand hygiene — because contrary to what people think, the hands are the way that these viruses most efficiently spread. Top of the list is frequent hand washing, hand sanitizing, or both. Avoid touching your face. If you cough or sneeze, it’s important to cover your face with a sleeve. Better yet, a tissue to be disposed of carefully, and then sanitizing the hands afterward. Washing your hands and drying them is the best procedure. When that’s not easy to do, alcohol-based sanitizer is a good second-best.
Q: Does wearing masks and gloves help prevent infections?
A: First of all, masks. There’s very limited evidence of benefit, if any, in a casual situation. Masks are useful for those who are unwell 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 still, if it becomes moist it will encourage the growth of viruses and bacteria. Gloves are probably even worse, because people put on gloves and then touch everything they would have touched with their hands. So it just becomes another way of transferring micro-organisms. And inside the gloves, your hands get hot and sweaty, which is a really good environment for microbes to grow.