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Bacteria Found on Airplanes Can Live for Days

Update Date: May 20, 2014 09:36 AM EDT

Diseases spread throughout the world when people from different regions come into contact with one another via different forms of transportation. For example, cases of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS) have recently shown up in in the United States after health care workers returned from Saudi Arabia. In a new study, researchers examined the bacteria content on the surfaces within an airplane. They found that bacteria tend to stay around for a few days and even up to one week.

"Many air travelers are concerned about the risks of catching a disease from other passengers given the long time spent in crowded air cabins," stated researcher Kiril Vaglenov, of Auburn University. "This report describes the results of our first step in investigating this potential problem."

For this study, Vaglenov and his research team analyzed how long two pathogens can survive in the environment of an airplane. The team used six specific parts of an airplane, which were the armrest, plastic tray table, metal toilet button, window shade, sea pocket cloth and leather, and exposed them to the pathogens, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and E. coli 0157:H7. The items were then placed under typical airplane conditions.

"Our data show that both of these bacteria can survive for days on the selected types of surfaces independent of the type of simulated body fluid present, and those pose a risk of transmission via skin contact," Vaglenov said.

The researchers reported that MRSA survived the longest on the seat-back pocket. The bacteria were present on that material for 168 hours. E. coli 0157:H7 stayed the longest, at 96 hours, on the armrest. The researchers concluded that airplane surfaces need to be properly cleaned and disinfected in order to reduce the risk of transmission.

The team's next project will focus on "effective cleaning and disinfection strategies, as well as testing surfaces that have natural antimicrobial properties to determine whether these surfaces help reduce the persistence of disease-causing bacteria in the passenger aircraft cabin," Vaglenov detailed. The team is currently studying other human pathogens as well.

The study's findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.

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