Last week the World Health Organization (WHO) issued updated guidelines for the airline industry that will further minimize the risk of tuberculosis (TB) and other infectious diseases being passed from passenger to passenger on board aircraft. The 'Tuberculosis and Air Travel' guidelines stipulate that people with infectious TB must postpone long-distance travel, while those with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) must postpone any air travel.
To date, no case of active TB has been identified as a result of exposure on a commercial aircraft. The quality of the air on board commercial aircraft is high and under normal conditions cabin air is cleaner than the air in most buildings.
Prolonged journeys of more than eight hours in a confined aircraft cabin may involve an increased risk of transmission, but the risk should be similar to that in other circumstances where people are together in other confined spaces. The guidelines also advise that aircraft ventilation systems should continue to operate when the aircraft is delayed on the ground and the doors are closed. If not in operation, ground delays should be kept to less than 30 minutes.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and its partners, including WHO, are actively looking at ways to improve the accuracy and availability of passenger information. As an interim measure, a locator card has been developed. If there is a suspected case of a communicable disease of international importance on board, designated passengers would be asked fill it out. The card records the name, seat number, and emergency contact information.
"Increasing global TB incidence and the emergence of drug resistant strains of the disease has raised concerns about the international spread of particularly dangerous strains. We need clear and effective procedures in place to reduce the risk of transmission of infection on board flights, and to ensure the appropriate follow up when necessary," said WHO's director of Stop TB, Dr. Mario Raviglione.