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The Germaphobe’s Guide to Airplane Travel

By Chloe Taylor Feb 12, 2020

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Practicing good hand hygiene is the best way people can protect themselves from coronavirus during a flight, a medical expert specializing in air transport told CNBC.

David Powell, medical advisor at the International Air Transport Association (IATA), told CNBC the risk of catching any serious viral infection during a flight is “very low” as the air on planes is purified with surgical-grade filters.

However, he said the risk remained if passengers were close to somebody on board who was unwell during the journey.

“We know that this virus has spread in the vast majority of cases through close contact with someone who is unwell at the time,” he explained to CNBC’s “Capital Connection” on Wednesday. “So that risk is what remains, and there are simple things you can do to reduce that risk, but through the air supply the risk is low.”

Powell said that amid the coronavirus crisis in China, the most crucial way to minimize exposure to the infection was to practice good hand hygiene.

“Respiratory viruses transmit mostly through droplet spread — which is coughing or sneezing on somebody — or in some cases by fomite spread, which means you contaminate a surface which another person then immediately touches,” he explained. “So hand hygiene is the primary thing.”

That means anyone worried about exposure should avoid touching their own face and frequently wash and dry their hands — or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer if they aren’t able to access hand washing facilities.

WATCH NOWVIDEO03:22Medical expert shares tips on reducing coronavirus risk on flights

According to Powell, another way to stop the spread of any virus on board an airplane is to observe “cough etiquette.”

“So (that means) coughing or sneezing into a tissue, and if you can’t do that then cough into your elbow and then immediately clean your hands,” he advised. “And then of course, not flying when you are yourself unwell.”

While taking preventative measures to reduce potential exposure to coronavirus could be effective, Powell said travellers should take action if they noticed a fellow passenger appeared to be ill on a flight.

“If somebody nearby you is unwell on the aircraft, you should bring that to the attention of the crew because there are established procedures they can take to separate that person and minimize risk to others,” he explained.

He also urged anyone suffering with potential coronavirus symptoms to seriously rethink their travel plans.

“It does appear from all the information I’ve seen that the commonest first symptom of this illness is fever, and quite a high fever, typically over 38 degrees (Celsius),” Powell told CNBC. “So if anybody’s got a high temperature they certainly shouldn’t travel, and that’s advice that we’ve given long before this outbreak.”

He also noted that face masks were an “ineffective protection” against coronavirus, and would only be advised for those who were caring for someone who was unwell or coughing and sneezing themselves.

Medical experts around the world have also suggested that hand washing is the most effective way people can protect themselves from coronavirus.

“One of the most important ways of stopping respiratory outbreaks such as this is washing hands,” David Heymann, who led WHO’s infectious disease unit at the time of the SARS epidemic, said at a press briefing in London last week.

WATCH NOWVIDEO02:56Doctor lays out steps travelers can take to protect themselves from coronavirus

He also advised people to avoid face-to-face contact with suspected patients and wash their hands while treating someone who may be unwell. Like Powell, he said wearing face masks were “not very effective.”

Speaking to CNBC’s “Squawk Box” last week, Dr. Corey Hebert, assistant professor at both Louisiana State and Tulane Universities, also said the face masks that were sold at regular drug stores wouldn’t help because viruses could move through the mesh.

Hebert told CNBC he had been in three cities over the previous three days, and during his travels had been sure to wipe any personal spaces he used to move any possible traces of the virus away — this could be done with sanitizer or even just soap and water, he noted.

“Don’t touch your face, get a flu shot, wipe your hands and wash your hands with water and soap, that’s the most important thing you can do,” he said.

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