The ease of international travel has just as easily helped the rapid spread of infectious diseases, and new research published in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases shows us just how nasty transportation hubs, such as airports, really are.
And what’s the dirtiest thing you’ll touch in the airport? The plastic security screening trays at security check areas.
Researchers collected surface and air samples weekly at three different points in February of 2016 during the peak of the 2015-16 influenza season at Finland’s Helsinki-Vantaa airport. Last year, around 18.9 million passengers traveled through its gates, with about 12 percent of them heading to or from Eastern, South-Eastern, and Southern Asia.
First, the researchers carefully mapped the airport to identify surfaces that were most frequently touched and areas where passengers were more likely to gather. Then, swabs were gathered immediately following the “peak hours” of passenger travel, early morning and mid-afternoon. These swabs were tested in real-time for influenza A and B viruses, syncytial virus, adenovirus, rhinovirus, and coronaviruses.
Altogether, 90 surface samples and four air samples were collected. Nucleic acids from at least one of the respiratory viruses were detected in 10 percent of surface samples, but here’s where it gets gross: viruses were detected in 67 percent of swabs taken at a children’s play area, half of all luggage trays at the security check area, half of the buttons at a pharmacy pay terminal, a third of all glass dividers at passport control points, and 14 percent of swabs taken of stair handrails. Most commonly found viruses included rhinovirus (40 percent), coronavirus (30 percent), adenovirus (20 percent), and influenza A (10 percent).
The researchers note the security trays are one of the most contaminated parts of the airport because each traveler is required to go through security screening and because the security trays are non-porous, helping prolong the survival of viruses. They say understanding how these pathogens are spread around transportation hubs can help inform how to safely protect passengers and staff during peak seasons.
“Public surface transport has been shown to be associated with acute respiratory infections, stressing the need to also investigate the role of various traffic hubs in transmission, including airports, ports, and underground stations,” wrote the authors.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classified the 2017-18 influenza season as “a high severity season” because of high levels of outpatient clinic and emergency department visits for flu-like symptoms in the US. For four consecutive months, the death rate for pneumonia and influenza was at an “epidemic threshold”.