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Flying and your microbiome

By Melva Robertson

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What do flying on a commercial airplane, working at the office, or relaxing at home have in common?

The answer is the microbiome, the community of bacteria found all around us, report experts at Emory’s School of Nursing, Georgia Institute of Technology, and the J. Craig Venter Institute. Their FlyHealthy study, supported by Georgia Tech and The Boeing Company, is believed to be the first to fully assess the microbiome of aircraft.

Using advanced sequencing technology, Emory and Georgia Tech researchers studied the bacteria on three components of an airliner cabin that passengers commonly touch: tray tables, seat belt buckles, and lavatory door handles. They swabbed those items before and after 10 transcontinental flights and also sampled air in the rear of the cabin during flights.

“Airline passengers should not be frightened by sensational stories about germs on a plane,” says Vicki Hertzberg PhD FASA, School of Nursing professor and co-author of the study. “They should recognize that microbes are everywhere and that an airplane is no better and no worse than an office building, a subway car, home, or classroom.”

Results about the microbiome on aircraft were reported in the journal Microbial Ecology in June. Earlier, in March, the researchers reported on another component of the FlyHealthy study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This time, researchers looked at the potential transmission of respiratory viruses such as influenza on aircraft. They found that an infectious passenger most likely will not infect anyone seated no more than two seats across and one row in front or back on an aircraft.

For this part of their study, researchers used a model that combines estimated infectivity and patterns of contact among aircraft passengers and crew members to determine the likelihood of infection. They monitored specific areas of the passenger cabin to glean information about contact between passengers as they moved around.

Among next steps, researchers would like to examine the microbiome of airport areas, especially departure lounges where passengers congregate before boarding. They also want to assess long-haul international flights where passengers spend more time together and move about the cabin more frequently.

Related Stories

Researchers determine routes of respiratory infectious disease transmission on aircraft (3/19/18)

Study update: Aircraft microbiome much like that of homes and offices (6/13/18)


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