Monday, June 11, 2012

Study to track germs in airline cabins

By Jennifer Johnson, Woodruff Health Sciences Center

A new study is expected to provide the first detailed information on how infectious diseases may spread onboard commercial airliners. Sponsored by aircraft manufacturer Boeing, the research will document patterns of passenger movement inside aircraft cabins and inventory the microbes present in cabin air and on surfaces such as tray tables and lavatory fixtures.

Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University are working together on the three-year project, in collaboration with Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines.

"We will learn how people move around in aircraft and study the microbes that are there at different times during flights,” says Howard Weiss, a mathematician at Georgia Tech. "From that information, we can start modeling the disease transmission and developing intervention strategies."

In 2002, 20 people on an international flight were infected by a single SARS patient, which showed how air travel could serve as a conduit for the rapid spread of both emerging infections and pandemics of known diseases.

"By understanding the patterns of how infectious diseases may be transmitted from an infected person to an uninfected person, companies like Boeing may be able to design aircraft that better protect passengers and crew members," says Vicki Hertzberg, an associate professor in Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health.

The researchers will use sophisticated sampling equipment carried aboard the aircraft to gather information about what’s in the cabin air. They will also swipe certain touch surfaces, and both the wipes and air-sampling filters will be analyzed by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and mass spectrometry equipment to identify the microbes present.

To study passenger movements around the aircraft, the researchers plan to use a modern twist on an old-fashioned technique: Graduate students watching and recording movement on an iPad. "They will be actively looking at who’s getting up and down, when they are doing it, and where they are going when they do," Hertzberg explains. "We will need to do this at a fairly high resolution with respect to time and place."

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