Hepatitis A On American Airlines Flight, How Flight Conditions Could Make Things Worse

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If you were wondering, gee, what could possibly make flying in the U.S. more unpleasant, here’s something. Chloe Leshner has reported for WCNC-TV, an NBC-affiliate in Charlotte, North Carolina, that “a plane full of people was exposed to Hepatitis A on a flight from San Francisco to Charlotte.” Here’s a WCNC segment on the incident on the American Airlines flight that went from San Francisco to Charlotte on September:

You’ve heard of the movie Snakes on a Plane? Well, Hepatitis A on a plane may not be quite as life-threatening, but it’s no walk in the park either. As I have described before for Forbes, Hepatitis A can lead to very unpleasant symptoms such as fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain) as well as more serious complications such as liver failure and death. My previous story for Forbes described how Hepatitis A outbreaks have been a continuing problem in many parts of the country.

The hepatitis A virus spreads fecal-orally, which is a fancy way of saying “poop, meet mouth.” If you are saying that you don’t normally eat poop or put your head in a toilet, you may be surprised about how poop can get around. There are two main reasons why poop there is, nearly everywhere.

Number one, people can be appallingly poopy about washing their hands after they go number two. Just look at the study published in Journal of Environmental Health that showed only about 5% of people washed their hands properly after going to the bathroom. Around 10% of people didn’t even wash their hands, and over 20% just wet their hands without using soap.

Number two, a study that I covered for Forbes showed that less than 3% of people handling food had washed their hands properly before and only a third even washed their hands at all. You can see how number two could then get on a number of things that you put in your mouth. Poop meet mouth.

Take these wonderful behaviors and then put them on an airplane, one in which people are squeezed together and food and beverages are being passed around. What do you have? A potential vacation trip for the Hepatitis A virus.

As you can see in the video, people were and are urged to get the Hepatitis A vaccine. This is a good suggestion. Why put yourself at risk for a disease when a vaccine is available?

But the Hepatitis A vaccine won’t prevent other pathogens from spreading on a plane. There have been concerns about respiratory pathogens like the flu virus being transmitted on a flight. But what about gastrointestinal ones such as Salmonella or E. coli? Recent years have seen numerous reports of airlines trying to pack more and more passengers on each plane and thus shrinking the available room between people. Just look at what David Schaper said for NPR about the matter and Martha White for the New York Times. This Tech Insider video shows how the available room for those riding American Airlines, United, and Delta has decreased in different ways over the years:

Indeed, as a frequent traveler, I have noticed that things have gotten progressively worse over the past decade with U.S. carriers.

Moreover, with so many U.S. carriers focusing cost-cutting even going as far as using lighter paper stock for their in-flight magazines to reduce weight and fuel costs, you have to wonder how infection control and hygiene measures are being affected. Infection control may be getting short shrift because after all you can’t see microbes. Are crew members being given adequate time and resources to wash their hands? Do they get enough time off when they may be sick? Are the food and beverage areas and equipment as well as bathrooms being properly cleaned and maintained?

This American Airlines incident is a reminder that airplanes are also like restaurants, except that these restaurants may require you to stay in them for over six hours. Therefore, the same precautions for food-borne illnesses should be in place. Imagine the comments and ratings on Yelp or Zagats if real restaurants had the same kind of seating and bathrooms as economy class on U.S. carriers do.

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