Air travel is safe during COVID-19 pandemic: Medical experts

Aviation medical experts recently attended a conference in Dubai about developments in industry

Medical experts have addressed some pertinent questions revolving around the safety of air travel amid the increasing risk from airborne SARS-CoV-2, which causes the COVID-19 disease. At a medical aviation conference recently held in Dubai, experts reiterated that air travel is the safest mode of travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Burjeel Hospital, a unit of VPS Healthcare, hosted the first edition of Burjeel Medical Aviation Congress in Dubai. During the conference, medical experts called on the public to comply with precautionary measures at airports and on flights for safe travel during the pandemic.

Aviation medical expert Dr. John Chalkley underlined that the risk of contracting COVID-19 infection is very low during air travel. He added, that all aviation companies are following international protocols and adhering to necessary safety measures to ensure the health and well-being of their passengers.

He pointed out that several studies have been conducted to show the effectiveness of safety measures in aircraft. He further stressed the need for the public to focus on community guidelines at the airport and strictly following them to ensure their safety. In addition, airlines have implemented various safety measures, including the installation of the high-efficiency particulate air filtration (HEPA) system. It ensures high airflow, allowing the cabin air to exchanges every two to three minutes. Furthermore, it filters approximately 99 percent of all virus particles present in the cabin.

"It has been proven through reviews that the spreading of infection in an aircraft can be minimised if all passengers are wearing a face mask properly,” Dr. Chalkley added.

According to the reviews of the ways to limit COVID-19 transmission on flights, proper masking has provided desirable results to a large extent. As per reports, transmission through droplets and close contact with an infected person in an aircraft are the highest risk. But a number of studies have indicated that aerosol exposure is minimal even during long-duration flights. Therefore, the risk of transmission on flights is low.

"The bigger risk is not infection on board, but rather importation of community spread, due to carriage of people unknowingly incubating COVID-19,” the experts added.

Addressing the congress, aviation medical experts urged all air passengers to strictly comply with the general safety precautions implemented by the global airline industry and respective governments.

As per the International Air Transport Association (IATA), flying is a highly safe option to travel during COVID-19. But the association urges all passengers to wear a mask while flying and follow bio-safety measures implemented by the individual airlines.

"Covid-19 tests up to three days before flying and up to five days after the travel are recommended by the US’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These recommendations may vary from country to country,” they added.

The conference saw the participation of more than 100 like-minded aviation and healthcare experts from the Middle East. They discussed various developments in aviation. medicine and medical specialties to assist doctors in addressing common health-related difficulties faced by aviation professionals.

At the conference, experts also discussed the importance of mental health during the pandemic. They urged all aviation medical practitioners and other healthcare professionals to proactively discuss work-related and even personal challenges (if needed) due to COVID-19 with their colleagues, pilots, and cabin crew. They called for the need to destigmatise mental health issues and encourage access to support programs or specialist mental health support.

For his part, Professor Dr. Erik Hohmann, Conference Chairman and Consultant Orthopedic & Trauma Surgeon, Sports Physician at Burjeel Hospital, Dubai, noted that more than 50 percent of health problems in the aviation industry are related to musculoskeletal issues.

Dr. Hohmann explained that aviation professionals like pilots and cabin crew are not able to return to work unless they are fully fit to carry out their duties. Therefore, it is highly important to treat aviation professionals with the same respect and significance as other professionals such as athletes.

"A focused and prompt team approach with a dedicated team including orthopedic surgeons, aviation medical examiners, and rehabilitation professionals well-versed in treating professional athletes guarantees the best outcome and fastest return to work,” Dr. Hohmann added.

Burjeel Medical Aviation Congress is the first aviation congress held in Dubai. It catered to medical professionals from the aviation industry and discussed the latest developments in aviation medicine, orthopedics, and other essential aspects of air travel, including safety, fatigue and crew management, particularly amid COVID-19. 

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