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Plane Facts About SARS

(April 4, 2003)

As the world becomes a smaller place, we must be aware that along with new sights, sounds and experiences come new illnesses. The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a rare health alert advising travelers to avoid visiting Hong Kong and the southern Chinese province. The reason: a deadly virus called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, SARS for short.

Ground Zero For SARS

What's most disturbing about SARS is that it is infecting healthy people in their prime. There is little hard data about SARS. What is known is that it seems to have been contracted in China and taken to Vietnam by the infected carrier. The carrier then infected local medical staff who cared for him during prior to his death. The disease has spread rapidly since with more than 2,200 reported cases worldwide, with at least 80 deaths from Hong Kong to Canada.

What It Does

SARS causes acute lung problems much like pneumonia, with death resulting from respiratory collapse. Symptoms are high fevers (100.3 degrees or higher), respiratory symptoms like cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.

At first, it was thought the disease was spread by close contact. But according to WHO experts that may not be the case. It now appears that the virus causing SARS is transmitted through air that has been contaminated with infected droplets from patients' sneezes or coughs. But it's possible the virus might also survive for several hours on surfaces, like knobs and tables, which increases the chances of it spreading.

Air Travel Panic

Airplanes are considered high risk for spreading the disease, mainly due to the confined environment. On Monday, an American Airlines flight from Tokyo was quarantined at San Jose airport in California after four people on board complained of symptoms similar to those found with SARS. It was later discovered they did not have the virus. Singapore, Cathay Pacific, and others are now providing masks for all passengers and crew on flights. In addition, most Asian carriers are disinfecting aircraft. This process involves cleaning all hard surfaces accessible to passengers, including armrests, tray tables, side panels, overhead bins and toilets, with an aircraft-specific disinfectant recommended by the WHO. The cockpit and crew rest areas will be similarly disinfected.

Despite airline reassurances many travelers are choosing not to travel to Asia at all. Continental's Gordon Bethune remarked during a CNBC interview that the no-show rate for Continental's New York to Hong Kong flight is exceptionally high, so much so that the airline is considering suspending the service indefinitely.

If You Go

For those who are unable to delay their travel to the aforementioned places, make sure you contact your airline to see if they are indeed still flying to your Asian destination. Travelers are advised to avoid crowded places and to build up their body's resistance by ensuring adequate rest, proper diet and exercise. In addition, it's advisable to wipe down surfaces prior to contact, wear a mask, and use tissue or a handkerchief open doors.

Important Websites:

Centers For Disease Control

World Health Organization's SARS Information

Related AnitaVacation Features:

Cold & Flu Turbulence -- Staying Healthy While Flying

The Toxic Air Up There: Cabin Air Controversy Heats Up

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