Saturday, December 8, 2012

THE MED BEAT: The ABC's of Airports and Disease

Quick announcement: For the Spring Semester, starting in December, due to author's traveling abroad (to Italy, South Africa, France, and more!) Unleashed will be published once a month. This semester, we will include guest articles written by people of interest: professors, musicians, wise parents, firefighters and more surprises to come!


            Time flies, and so do diseases.
Attention all passengers....

I remember going on vacation with my parents... The outfit chosen for the plane ride had to be carefully calculated: functional, yet comfortable, adaptable to changing climates in and outside of the plane, and for some people, reasonably stylish since “the whole world will see you while you’re travelling.” But the most important part of the outfit was that after we arrived at our destination, those clothes were not to be worn, let alone touched, ever again. They were contaminated, covered in the microscopic germ-stamp of the airports and planes. They had to be washed immediately, and if not, could only be worn again for the return flight home since they’re already dirty...

Some of you may relate to this kind of experience, many others may be thinking that I was raised by obsessive germophobic parents.

Regardless, the fact does remain that travelling by air is a very dirty thing to do. It is quite likely that future generations with advanced forms of transport, such as teleportation or personal flight, or even texting yourself from one location to the next, will look back at our present-day airports and wonder how we did not all perish of some global epidemic (as many horror movies like to show).

An interesting study done by the smart people at MIT found that there is actually a pattern to the way diseases can spread through US domestic airline routes, a pattern which does not randomly follow flight paths across the country. They found that people don’t actually fly about the country randomly, but that they actually proceed in very regular patterns, seems fairly obvious right? The interesting part is that these patterns make certain airports more likely to spread diseases than others, even if those airports are not necessarily the largest in the country. For a video of US flight paths and frequency of daily airline routes, click here.

It turns out that LAX, Honolulu International, and Kennedy International in New York were the three airports most capable of spreading disease, even though they are not the largest airports in the country (Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is the largest airport in the US, and yet it was ranked 8th on the list of contagion influence). Why LAX? Why Kennedy? Well, LAX and Kennedy have many flights routed through them, and they occupy a pivotal place in the patterning of US domestic air travel. They may not see the most travellers in a given day, but they do have the greatest spread of travellers coming in and out of them, which means that they have a higher ability to spread domestic and foreign diseases across the country. Why Honolulu? Hawaii’s location in the South Pacific exposes it to a disease-friendly climate, and also lies closest to the rest of the Pacific and the continent of Asia, which are all areas of heavy disease traffic that could quite easily enter the US through Hawaii. Thus it seems that in the interest of doing the best thing for your country: if you go to Hawaii, stay there!

There are other aspects of airports that the study did not take into account, such as the design of the structures themselves. There are certain ways of conducting crowds that can increase direct and indirect contact between travellers, which of course also increases the risk of transferring germs and other contagions. There are issues of air circulation, staff to traveller ratio (since fewer staff means one person touches more people and therefore more people transferring germs to more people), employee sanitation protocols, number of bathroom facilities, etc. But at the end of the day, it really isn’t how clean the airport is, but rather how clean the people are that are using them.

It may seem self-evident, but going to the airport to catch a flight means that you will actually spend time in two airports, since you have to also arrive somewhere. Anyone who has been to an airport knows that the entrance to the plane is not next to the ticket booth, nor is the exit near where you get off the plane... It seems like no matter where you’re flying or where you’ve come from, you always need to walk across the entire airport in order to get anywhere! This means that you are in contact with more people, more railings, more staff, more bathrooms, more elevators, more escalators, and more germs. The answer? get in contact with more soap (or hand sanitizer).

Remember: there’s a reason the security and immigration workers wear gloves. Use this as a remind to wash your hands a little more. Many airports in the US have touchless bathroom facilities; no doors, automatic taps, soap dispensers, and hand-dryers, so use them!

Thank you, we hope you enjoy your flight.

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Medical Section Columnist, Kurtis Morrish:

My name is Kurtis Morrish. I graduated from Cal last year as an Integrative Biology major. I am now in the process of applying to medical school in the hopes of one day serving people as a family doctor. By no means do I write to you as an M.D., but I have extensive experience doing all kinds of scientific research; boiling-down long, dry, mumbo-jumbo-dense medical journals into a reduction that is a little sweeter, useful, and hopefully informative for you. I hope to learn as much from my writing as you do, so please hit me up with further questions, concerns, or comments!

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