Thursday, August 13

Danger in the air

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File photo shows a laboratory technician working on samples from people to be tested for the new coronavirus at ‘Fire Eye’ laboratory in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province. Flu viruses change every few weeks, apparently. Right now, highly skilled teams of medical researchers are working on a vaccine for the coronavirus, but once it’s perfected and in general use, the virus will mutate again …  it’ll be a bit like those cholera shots of yore. Flu vaccinations will be administered because people feel at least they’re doing something.

SIXTY years ago, an overseas journey, whether by steamer or aeroplane, used to start with a visit to the doctor. Travellers’ vaccinations were compulsory, ‘shots’  for cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, I can’t remember them all. Once safely vaccinated, the traveller was issued with a yellow card, duly annotated, stamped, and signed by a doctor.

Those vaccinations were internationally required for the purpose of preventing the spread of infectious diseases. Were they effective? I really don’t know. In the late 1960s, there was a cholera scare in Sarawak. Everybody rushed off to get their ‘shots’ at government clinics, or vaccination centres set up in suitable locations. I seem to remember we had ours at the Boy Scout headquarters in Batu Lintang. Our good family doctor told me, some time later, that “those shots give you 30 to 50 per cent protection, no more”.

The important thing was to observe strict food and personal hygiene — lots of soap and water, Dettol everywhere, and no meals or snacks in the coffee shops. The injections were mostly to show that “yes, we’re doing something …”

Sarawak weathered the storm, just like we’ve weathered many other storms since. Now we are faced with yet another pandemic, though it hasn’t seriously touched our own shores just yet. But I tried to see it all in some proportion. I understand that during the typical ‘flu season’ each winter, the USA records some 40 million influenza cases. Of those, about 60,000 persons actually need to be hospitalised; about 60,000 die of the infection. That’s the average figure, for one country, but it’s never called a pandemic or even much publicised.

There are many types of influenza, all of them contagious. If we assume that the coronavirus flu made its way around the world mainly by air travel, we should also compare the number of air travellers who might be exposed to it. How many people travelled by air in 1970 – how many times travel by air today? 10 times more? 100 times? 1,000 times? I don’t know, but I do know that it is a very large number. Nobody is obliged to get travellers’ shots any more, mainly because they weren’t considered to be particularly useful.

Even non-travellers dutifully get their annual flu shots, though we are quite aware that they’re not 100 per cent effective. Flu viruses change every few weeks, apparently. Right now, highly skilled teams of medical researchers are working on a vaccine for the coronavirus, but once it’s perfected and in general use, the virus will mutate again …  it’ll be a bit like those cholera shots of yore. Flu vaccinations will be administered because people feel at least they’re doing something.

Who has sat in an aircraft on a long flight, with a fellow-passenger who coughed and sneezed (and spat, if you were really unlucky) the whole six, or eight, or 10 hours of the journey? If that sort of thing doesn’t spread disease, what does?

BUT, and this is a big BUT – have passengers any way of addressing this problem? If the cougher was in the check-in queue, could we have demanded that he be not allowed to board? I have no idea what a passenger’s rights would be in such a situation, or if the airline has the power to ban an obviously sick, possibly contagious person from boarding an aircraft. For that matter, what tactics would the airline staff be prepared to use if such a passenger stubbornly insisted on his right to make use of the ticket he had paid for?

There used to be a time when a pregnant woman was not allowed to fly after the sixth month. Babies still managed to get born on flights once in a while, of course. Such an event caused a lot of fuss, but if mother and baby were well, it ended with a headline in the local paper, and that was about it.

A pandemic that’s seen to be ‘travel-related’, and particularly air-travel related, generates headlines too! Unfortunately a lot of them are hysterical, exaggerated either through ignorance of the true situation, or quite deliberately mischief-making.

I wish I could recommend a cure, either for the flu or for the nasty publicity, preferably both. But, sadly, I can’t. We will have to wait until both blow over. In the meantime, don’t travel unless you have to, don’t frequent crowded places, wash your hands again, and again, and again! Wearing a mask is about as potent as those good old cholera shots used to be, but wear one if it makes you feel safer.

Oh yes, and wash your hands AGAIN.

 

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