Tips from an airline doctor to avoid coronavirus

Forget the masks and rubber gloves. The best way to avoid coronavirus it is Wash hands frequently, according to a medical advisor of the world's airlines.

The virus cannot survive long in the seats or armrests, so physical contact with another person carries the highest risk of infection on a flight, he says David Powell, medical advisor of the International Air Transport Association (IATA, for its acronym in English). Masks and gloves are better for spreading viruses than for stopping them, he says.

As concerns about the magnitude of the outbreak increase, major airlines such as United Airlines Holdings Inc. and Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. have eliminated thousands of flights to China. Here is an edited transcript of an interview with Powell. IATA represents more than 290 airlines and more than 80% of the world's air traffic.

Q: Is there a risk of getting contaminated with the virus in an airplane?

A: The risk of getting a serious viral infection on a plane is low. The air supply of a modern airplane is very different from that of a cinema or an office building. Air is a combination of fresh air and recirculated air, approximately in halves. The recirculated air passes through filters of the same type that we use in the operating rooms. It is guaranteed that the supplied air will be 99.97% (or more) free of viruses and other particles. Therefore, the risk, if it exists, does not come from the supplied air. It comes from other people.

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Q: What are the chances of getting the virus by touching the seats, the armrest or any of the objects on an airplane?

A: Viruses and other microbes like to live on living surfaces like us. Simply shaking someone's hand will be a much greater risk than a dry surface without biological material. Survival of viruses on surfaces is not very good, so it is believed that normal cleaning, and then additional cleaning in case someone is found to be contagious, is the appropriate procedure. Will people stop meeting inside an airplane? I would answer with another question: will I stop going to the movies, sports games, concerts or conferences? I don `t believe.

Q: What is important to do on a plane to make sure you don't get infected?

A: Hand hygiene, because contrary to what people think, hands are the way these viruses spread more efficiently. The most important is frequent hand washing, hand disinfection or both. Avoid touching your face. If you cough or sneeze, it is important to cover your face with a sleeve. Better yet, a handkerchief that you can carefully discard, and disinfect your hands later. Washing your hands and drying is the best procedure. When it is not easy to do so, alcohol-based disinfectant is a good second option.

Q: Does wearing masks and gloves help prevent infections?

A: First, the masks. There is very limited evidence of benefit, if any, in a casual situation. Masks are useful for those who are not well, to protect other people. But wearing a mask all the time will be ineffective. It will allow the transmission of viruses around it, through it and, worse, if it gets wet, it will stimulate the growth of viruses and bacteria. The gloves are probably even worse, because people put on gloves and then touch everything they would have touched with their hands. Therefore, it becomes another way to transfer microorganisms. In addition, inside the gloves, your hands warm and sweat, which creates a very conducive environment for microbes to grow.

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Q: The answer to contain the spread of the virus is to close the borders?

A: One thing that has changed in the world is the ability of infections to travel quickly from one place to another, and it is true that aviation is part of that. At the same time, aviation is essential to deal with outbreaks like this. This is why we have a collaboration between the World Health Organization and IATA that has been in effect for several years. If countries simply close during disease outbreaks, as happened in West Africa with Ebola, that can make things worse. During that outbreak, the country fought, WHO could not reach its people and could not obtain biological samples. The economic impact of the closure made things worse. General travel bans can make things worse. They can encourage people to travel in secret, which means that control is lost.

Q: When can we say with certainty that the worst may already have happened?

A: The number of cases has continued to increase by about 16% to 20% every day. Until we reach a point where those numbers decrease, we could not say that we have overcome the problem.

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