Pathogens On A Plane: How To Stay Healthy In Flight
From Ebola in West Africa to chikungunya in the Caribbean, the world has had plenty of strange — and scary — outbreaks this year.
Some pathogens have even landed in the U.S. Just a few months ago, two men boarded planes in Saudi Arabia and brought a new, deadly virus from the Middle East to Florida and Indiana.
Nobody along the way caught Middle East respiratory syndrome. But all of these plane-hopping pathogens got us wondering: How easily do bacteria and viruses spread on commercial jets? And is there anything we can do to cut our risk?
Microbiologist James Barbaree and his team at Auburn University have been trying a few simple experiments to figure out the first question.
The airlines gave the scientists parts on commercial jets where spread might take place — a steel toilet button, the rubber armrest, the plastic tray table and, of course, “the seat pocket in front of you.”
Barbaree and his team sterilized the surfaces and then painted on two dangerous microbes: the antibiotic-resistant superbug MRSA and E. coliO157, which will give you an unforgettable case of diarrhea.
Several days later, the microbes were still happily thriving on the plane parts. E. coli survived about four days. MRSA lasted at least a week, the team reported at a scientific meeting in May.
Such hardiness is common for MRSA and E. coli, Barbaree says. “I’m not surprised at all the bacteria survived so long on the surfaces,” he says. “MRSA has been tested on other surfaces. And in one case, it lasted over a year.”
In general, the bacteria tended to stick on the plane surfaces instead of hopping onto a pig skin — an experimental proxy for a traveler’s hand. But some of the bugs did make the jump from the plane onto the fake hand.
Illustration by Benjamin Arthur for NPR