US officials went through a health scare this week after passengers from three flights reported feeling ill with flu-like symptoms.
The first inbound flight from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, briefly went into quarantine at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City after health officials learned that more than 100 passengers were feeling sick. Eleven of them were taken to the hospital. A day later, two complete flights coming from Europe had to go through medical reviews at the Philadelphia International Airport after 12 passengers reported feeling ill with flu-like symptoms.
Many of the passengers in those flights were returning pilgrims from the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, US health officials said on Friday.
This year, the hajj took place in late August and drew around two million people according to estimates.
Euronews spoke to Vicki Stover Hertzberg, a professor of nursing at Emory University in Atlanta Georgia and the lead author of a study on how infections spread in aeroplanes, to determine why so many passengers reported feeling sick in those flights and what people should do to avoid an infection in an aircraft.
Why did so many passengers report feeling sick on these three flights?
The incubation period of a virus but also its own virulence are what make a person sick during a flight according to Stover Hertzberg:
"There’s a possibility that people were already sick when they got on the aeroplane and of course by the time the plane arrived in New York, there might have been a virulent quick acting bug that infected others."
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) say that influenza, commonly known as the flu, is transmitted by large droplets, so if a person with the flu is coughing, sneezing, and talking, the droplets coming out of that person's mouth and nose can reach as far as a metre. So people within a metre of a sick person are the ones at higher risk of getting sick, explained the professor.
Research carried out by Stover Hertzberg's team found that movement within a cabin is not what gets people sick.
"It's being seated very close to an infected person that gives another person the highest probability, that means two seats on either side or one row in front or in back. That’s what we called the 'perimeter risk,'" she said.
If it's a fast-acting virus then up to 11 people for every sick person can be infected, added the professor.
So think about it: If a sick person is seating on the aisle seat then the two people on both sides are within the risk area because there's less than a metre away. The person across the aisle is also within the metre and the people in the rows in front and back are also too close.
It's not the plane, it's the people
So if it's the people closest to you that can infect you with a virus, what can a passenger do to not get sick?
"If you're healthy, get a window seat. It minimises the number of people you're in contact with," advises Stover Hertzberg.
Minimising movement around the cabin, keeping a good hand hygiene, and not touching the face area are also good tips to avoid getting sick on a plane, according to the professor.
And what if a person is sick and needs to travel?
"If you’re sick and you have to travel then preserve good cough etiquette, cough in the crook of your elbow, turn the vent on yourself, observe good hand hygiene, and try to eliminate coughing and sneezing with over the counter medicine," said Stover Hertzberg.
What about the germiest things on a plane?
Stover Hertzberg said her research only looked at "high-touch areas" like tray tables, belt buckles, and lavatory door handles so she didn't know what places or artefacts in an aircraft carried the most germs but that all of these three things "were burdened with bacteria."