Sick air travellers most likely to infect next row: Study

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People who fly on airplanes while contagious can indeed get other people sick, but the risk is mainly to those seated next to them or in the adjacent row, US researchers said.

The study in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) is the first to quantify the odds of getting sick based on a passenger’s proximity to an infectious person, Health news reported.

Researchers studied 10 transcontinental flights and meticulously tracked passenger movements to estimate the likelihood of common respiratory infections like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and influenza, which are spread by tiny droplets in the air and on surfaces.

“Passengers seated within one row and within two seats laterally of the infected passenger had an 80 percent or greater probability of becoming infected,” said the study led by researchers at Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“For all other passengers, the probability of infection was less than three percent.”

Researchers also warned that infectious crew members could infect an average of 4.6 passengers per flight.

“Thus, it is imperative that flight attendants not fly when they are ill,” it said.

The good news is that public health guidelines typically go even further, urging those seated within two rows of an infected passenger to undergo surveillance for certain contagious diseases.

“The authors’ model argues that it requires you to be closer than previously reported within one row and two seats of an infected passenger as opposed to two rows regarding greatest risk of becoming ill on an airplane,” said Lenox Hill Hospital emergency physician Robert Glatter, who was not involved in the study.

“But the risk was significantly less if you were seated beyond two rows of an infected person who was coughing or sneezing.

This runs counter to traditional thinking that if a person coughs or sneezes anywhere in the cabin, they will infect the entire plane.

”Travelling while contagious is “an important public health concern” given that three billion passengers per year travel by air, the report said.