As the coronavirus outbreak continues to rack up a devastating human toll, travellers are growing increasingly nervous about whether it is safe to fly.
Air travel is traditionally a significant transporter of illness, and while many airlines moved quickly to suspend flights to and from China after the outbreak, the tight confines of plane cabins — along with the constant crisscrossing of global air traffic — has made flying seem risky.
Air travel has allowed the Wuhan coronavirus, which originated in China, to reach — other countries.
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Cruise ships, an even more notorious carrier of sickness, have certainly been implicated in the coronavirus crisis. There have so far been 174 confirmed cases confirmed on the Diamond Princess, where thousands of passengers and crew remains in quarantine off the coast of Japan.
But how easily can plane passengers be exposed to the Wuhan coronavirus, and is there anything they can do to avoid it?
The medical advisor of the International Air Transport Association told Bloomberg the risk of contracting coronavirus, or any serious viral infection, was “low” on planes as cabin air was purified with surgical-grade filters.
“The air supply to a modern airliner is very different from a cinema or an office building,” he said.
“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 theatres.
“That supplied air is guaranteed to be 99.97 per cent — 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.”
While it is still not known for sure how coronavirus is being transmitted, it’s believed to be spread through droplets in the air when people sneeze and cough.
Dr Powell said good hand hygiene was the best way to protect against anyone on board who was sick.
That meant washing hands thoroughly with soap and water and using hand sanitiser.
“Contrary to what people think, the hands are the way that these viruses most efficiently spread,” he said.
“Top of the list is frequent hand washing, hand sanitising, or both.”
Dr Powell also recommended travellers avoid touching their face and if coughing, do it thoughtfully.
“If you cough or sneeze, it’s important to cover your face with a sleeve,” he said.
“Better yet, a tissue to be disposed of carefully, and then sanitising the hands afterwards. Washing your hands and drying them is the best procedure. When that’s not easy to do, alcohol-based sanitiser is a good second-best approach.”
Oh, and you can ditch that face mask.
“There’s very limited evidence of benefit (of masks), if any, in a casual situation,” he said.
“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.”
Dr Powell said viruses didn’t survive for long on surfaces so normal cabin cleaning — and extra cleaning of a plane that had carried an unwell person — was adequate.
Researchers have determined the window seat was the best place to sit on a plane to avoid coronavirus.
A study of the behaviours of passengers and airline crew by researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia found those who were seated in the window had less contact with potentially infected people.
Respiratory illnesses, like coronavirus, generally spread through a person coming into contact with an infected person’s saliva or mucus.
Those sitting in window seats had less interaction with other passengers – beyond those sitting within two rows of them – thus limiting their chances of interacting with an infected person, researchers said.