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27 April 2009

Swine Flu Risk for Airline Passengers - Yes, a Virus in the Sky Can Kill You

With the recent reports that swine flu (H1N1) epidemic in Mexico may be spreading around the world, one of the fears is that air travel may make it easy for the flu to spread. Given the global nature of air travel, and nature of swine flu, by the time authorities were aware that there was a risk, it was already too late. In addition to the US and Mexico, reports of swine flu infections have already been made by authorities in a number of countries in Europe, Asia, and South America. In at least one case, authorities suspect that a cluster of flu cases in New York may be due to a group of students who had recently visited Mexico.

When events like this happen, one question that gets asked is whether anyone has ever died after being exposed to some kind of virus on an airline flight. That answer appears to be yes, and it involved the SARS virus in 2003. The next question in your mind may be whether it happen with swine flu virus in 2009. Only time will tell if it will happen again.

The New England Journal of Medicine reported that in March 2003, six passengers from two different flights in Asia died after being exposed to the SARS virus on those flights. Two of the flight attendants and 17 of the other passengers on those two flight were also infected, but survived.

Another question that may get asked is what kind of person is at the greatest risk of getting infected. A report in the online edition of The Times of London, quotes Michael O’Leary, the head of the Irish airline Ryanair, as saying that the virus was only a risk to Asians and Mexicans “living in slums.” The official position of is that unlike human beings, a virus does not discriminate on the basis of national origin or economic condition and would certainly never be quoted saying anything so blatantly asinine. suggests that passengers who are concerned about swine flu should follow the news media for the latest bulletins and to refer to the following resources for information:
Travel Warnings and Other Passenger Information
US Centers for Disease Control
World Health Organization

Additional Resources

Background Information on SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)

Podcast from 29 April 2009: Swine Flu Risks for Airline Passengers (2:35)

Background Information on Bird Flu (Avian Influenza)

Podcast from March 2006: Bird Flu Risks for Air Travelers (5:44)



    Some 36,000 Americans and a million people world-wide die each year from the common flu. With luck and calm governance, the Mexican outbreak will harm
    far fewer.

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