It’s a variation on an old theme: Travel spreads disease. We’ve known it at least since the Bubonic plague reached Turkey in 1347 via the Silk Road — an ancient trade route connecting China to the Mediterranean — following an outbreak in 1330s China. By 1348, it raged in Italy. By 1351, half of Europe lay in plague.
The Silk Road has largely been replaced by the Silver Bird. Exponentially growing air travel accelerates the spread of bacteria. JFK International Airport, for example, handled 56,827,154 passengers in 2015. Travelers sample the local microflora – often more resistant than at home – as they eat, drink and swim, returning home colonized.
And now we enter the most traveled period of the year. This Thanksgiving it’s estimated that close to 50 million Americans will travel for the holidays, more than 27 million of whom — a record for the holiday — are expected to fly. And the evidence shows that both the plane and the terminal have bad bugs willing to travel with you.
For example, a recent study found that drug-resistant bacteria from an individual traveler can be transferred to inanimate surfaces and then picked up by others. German researchers sampled 400 toilet door handles in 136 airports in 59 countries and found the handles were “loaded with germs from the skin and the intestines”. The vast majority of the bacteria were Staphylococcus aureus.
And two years ago, researchers from Auburn University found that germs on a plane –- in seatback pockets, tray tables, the metal button used to flush the toilet, etc. — can last anywhere from several days (E. coli) to a week (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA). Thereby increasing the chance that one of these stowaways will hitch a ride with you when you disembark.
The good news is that researchers from both studies say there is a way to protect yourself: Always wash your hands. Professor Karsten Becker of the University Hospital Münster stresses that the best way to combat bugs hanging around on airport door handles is to simply wash your hands after you’ve been to the toilet. “No matter where you are, thorough hand washing after going to the toilet is a must,” he says. “In public toilets, any skin contact with surfaces should be kept to an absolute minimum as well.” He says using an alcoholic hand disinfectant instead of soap is also useful, but it’s only necessary in public toilets and not at home.
One more thing: Effetive hand washing does call for the right technique: