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How to avoid Coronavirus during air travel

As concerns are mounting over the coronavirus outbreak, several airlines have suspended flights to China. Wary travellers are also donning facemasks at the subways and airports. Panicked customers are arming themselves with disinfectant and several businesses are suspending operations. Several countries have also placed a travel restriction to China. More people across the world have grown anxious about being in crowds or travelling in confined spaces like aeroplane.

All of this can be alarming, it is therefore important to get appropriate information regarding air travels during this current outbreak.

Should I wear a mask while on the plane? The answer is yes and no. 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.

The risk of catching a serious viral infection on an aircraft is low. The air supply to a modern airliner is very different from a movie theatre or an office building. 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 percent (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.

Facemask is therefore useful if one is seated close to someone with respiratory symptoms who is not wearing a mask. It is important that facemask is worn appropriately. Surgical face masks do a little job in preventing airborne viruses from entering your body. Instead N95 does a better job.

What are the chances of getting the virus by touching the seats, armrest or any of the objects on a plane? Reports have found that crew members have a limited time to clean the cabin before passengers on the next flight boarded.

Majority also lacked a comprehensive plan aimed at preventing and containing the spread of diseases through air travel. So, what does that mean for travellers? Travellers need to exercise caution. This might include placing sheets of paper on tray table so laptops or other items don’t come in contact with the surface, using a paper towel when opening and closing the bathroom door and not to place food directly on the table. (It should be kept in its container.) And forget about using seat-back holders.

What’s important if you are on a plane to ensure you don’t get infected? Hand hygiene. Contrary to what people think, the hands are the way that these viruses most efficiently spread. Top of the list is frequent hand washing, hand sanitising, or both.

Avoid touching your face. If you cough or sneeze, it’s important to cover your face with a sleeve. Better yet, a tissue to be disposed of carefully, and then sanitising the hands afterward.

Washing your hands and drying them is the best procedure. When that’s not easy to do, alcohol-based sanitizer is a good second-best.

Do not forget to exercise other travel cautions.


Ade Alakija

Ade Alakija, medical director Q-Life Family Clinic & Bukola Adeniyi, Consultant Family physician and travel medicine physician Q-Life Family Clinic.

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