This morning’s news of a possible norovirus outbreak on a Qantas flight from Santiago, Chile to Sydney, Australia, has us all on edge. Known for wreaking havoc on cruise ships, the norovirus is not a typical worry for fliers. Should it be?
It appears that 26 passengers, all from the same high-school tour group, became ill while on the 14-hour, transpacific flight. They were moved to seats at the back of the plane, where they had access to four lavatories. Upon arrival in Sydney, 16 passengers required hospitalization, while the ten remaining sick passengers did not need immediate medical attention, and were escorted through the airport “with minimal exposure” to other travelers. Later today, Qantas posted a statement urging all travelers on that flight to “keep a close eye” on their health for the next 48 hours.
This is not the first reported occurrence of the virus, which causes severe bouts of nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea, and vomiting, on an airplane. In 2008, a Boston to Los Angeles flight made an emergency landing three hours into its trip because so many of its passengers had become sick.
Although a 2009 CDC study concluded that the chance of contracting the virus onboard a short-haul flight “appears minimal” in instances when nobody on the flight presents symptoms, today’s news serves as a reminder that the illness can, and does, affect air travel.
And while norovirus is awful anywhere, it may be the most insufferable on a plane. So what can you do to protect yourself?
According to Dr. Rajiv Narula, Medical Director at New York’s International Travel Health Consultants, the best way to prevent infection is frequent hand washing and general cleanliness. If it appears that individuals are getting sick, forego proper hand washing and use hand sanitizer instead, as the bathroom could be a germ incubator. Narula recommends minimizing contact with any publicly used areas on the plane, and eating only cooked foods (no salads, no ice cubes).
Other suggestions? Avoid the aisle. On that 2008 Los Angeles flight, passengers sitting in aisle seats were more likely to become infected.
Peter Schlesinger is a Research Assistant at Travel + Leisure, and part of the Trip Doctor News Team. Follow him on Twitter at @pschles08.