WASHINGTON - The coronavirus outbreak has upended air travel and caused people to question the safety of cruises. Travelers have canceled trips to Asia and gone so far as to refrain from eating Chinese food prepared in countries that don't have any widespread outbreak of the virus called COVID-19.

Doctors have warned that an infectious disease anywhere is hours away from being everywhere.

Case in point: SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome. It was first discovered in China in February 2003. It lasted only about six months, but before it was finished, it had spread to more than two dozen countries, mostly through air travel.

Christos Nicolaides is a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who sets up computational models to look at the spread of disease. He spoke to VOA by Skype.

"The air transportation network is the main pathway for a global disease spread,” Nicolaides said.

Think of all the things you and others touch at an airport. The check-in kiosk, handrails, seats, the buttons on water fountains, table tops. In an airplane, you touch the seat, food trays, arm rests and the door knob to the toilet.

When people cough or sneeze droplets of mucus spew through the air and land on surfaces that other people touch.

Nicolaides led a study that concludes that if you want "to slow an epidemic, focus on hand-washing."

"First of all, we tried to calculate the rate of hand-washing around the world,” Nicolaides said. 

Previous studies show that 70% of people wash their hands after using a toilet. And out of that number only 6% or 7% do it correctly.

"So correctly I mean, they wash their hands with soap and water for at least 15 seconds,” Nicolaides explained. "We did some back of the envelope calculations and we found out that if you visit an airport any time in the world, you will realize that only one of five people have clean hands.”

Nicolaides then looked at what he calls super-spreader airports.

"A super-spreader airport is an airport that combines two characteristics. The first one is that it has a lot of traffic. A lot of people. And the other characteristic is that it’s connected with many other airports with many other international flights,” Nicolaides said.

These airports are basically the ten largest in the world which include the John F. Kennedy in New York, Los Angeles International, London Heathrow, Hong Kong International, Beijing Capital among them.

Nicolaides calculated that if 60% of travelers had clean hands, the potential to slow a global disease rose to 69%. But even if just 30% of travelers had clean hands, the spread of disease could drop by 24%.  Nicolaides says educating the public is the key.

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