In addition to getting people around the world quickly and efficiently, international air travel also has a role in spreading illnesses and disease. This was highlighted this week when an Air New Zealand flight from Auckland to Sydney carried a passenger suffering from the measles.
New Zealand’s North Island is experiencing a rash of measles outbreaks, mostly confined around Auckland. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, 975 cases had been reported, with over 800 coming from around Auckland.
Measles is a highly contagious disease that is spread by body fluids, mostly from coughing or sneezing or touching something that somebody has coughed or sneezed upon. Vaccinations are available but not everybody gets vaccinated. Whilst rarely life-threatening in first world countries, it can lead to encephalitis, infections of the middle ear, pneumonia, and can be particularly problematic for pregnant women.
The infected passenger flew into Sydney from Auckland on Friday, August 23rd, 2019, onboard NZ711. It can take 14 days for symptoms to show and the passenger was unaware they had measles at the time. The passenger returned to Auckland on Sunday, August 25th, 2019, on NZ108.
Public health authorities have released information about the flights in the hope that anyone on either of the two flights watches out for symptoms.
Not as easy to get sick on a plane as everyone thinks
Despite the perception that aircraft cabins are a home away from home for airborne illnesses and diseases, the World Health Organisation has research suggesting the there is little risk from communicable diseases whilst airborne.
It notes that, whilst cabin air is recirculated, it is also mixed with fresh air. Recirculated air is also passed through high-efficiency air particle filters which do an excellent job of capturing dust, fungi, bacteria, and viruses.
The risk comes from sitting near somebody who coughs or sneezes, or who does so into their hands then touches a shared item, such as an armrest, tap, or door handle. But as the WHO points out, that risk is prevalent anywhere.
The WHO draws on both TB and SARS as examples. It notes there was an example of TB been transmitted inflight during the 1980s but nothing recorded since. More recently, the WHO also found that the risk of transmission of SARS inflight during the 2003 outbreak was also very low.
We’ve all heard the horror stories of passengers arriving back from somewhere and coming down with some dreadful disease. But the point is they are rarely transmitted inflight. The aircraft, like the Air New Zealand flights in August, is merely the vehicle for transporting the already infected passenger.
When that passenger doesn’t know they are infected, there’s not much the airline can do about it. While aviation has brought us many benefits, this remains one of its uncontrollable drawbacks.