A few months later, I was lying in bed on a Sunday reading the New York Times travel section and there was a story about volunteer trips to Mongolia restoring Buddhist monasteries damaged during the Russian period. I said to myself, that is how I am going. And go I did. It was an amazing trip and I was forever changed and fell in love with this amazing land.
This time I am going as part of another love…my love of birds, particularly cranes. I am a board member for the International Crane Foundation (www.savingcranes.org) and our founder, George Archibald is leading a trip to Mongolia to check out the species of cranes that reside there in the summer…Siberian, White-naped, Eurasian, Demoiselle, and the Red-Crowned.
So I find myself traveling from San Francisco to Seoul and then to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. That is lots of hours in the air (around 17) and as it turns out, lots of germs!
That lead me to want to write about a recent article in the NYT about Germs and Travel. Oh boy! It was about Dr. Philip M. Tierno who it turns out, is quite the germophobe! He believes that travel means combat and the enemy is heartless and relentless, stealthy and ubiquitous. These germs are poised to attack every second of the day, even when you are asleep. It exploits your vulnerabilities and turns everyone and everything around him into agents who thoughtlessly do his bidding.
Quite the description, hey?
Dr. Tierno is not a corporate security expert trying to outflank rogue competitors. His enemy is infectious disease. He’s a professor of microbiology at the New York University School of Medicine who sees the common places of travel — cabs, airports, airplanes, hotels, restaurants and business meetings — as battlefields in the never-ending war against germs. Hi opening salvo is “Fecal organisms, oral bacterium, respiratory flora and thousands of other pathogens are here, there, everywhere.” Wow!
When we travel, our encounters skyrocket. When you lay your hand against the seat of a cab to pull yourself in, it is as if you are shaking hands with every rider since the cab was last cleaned (a concept best measured in geologic time). Gripping the airport escalator handrail is like holding hands with thousands of fellow passengers. Your close encounters of the infectious kind continue on the plane as you touch the armrest of your seat, the tray table, in-flight magazine and the lavatory faucet and door handle. And your hotel? Depending on when and how it was cleaned, you may not be sleeping and showering by yourself.
Am I oversharing?
Now consider that only about half of us wash our hands after going to the bathroom. It’s enough to make you echo a line from David Foster Wallace’s novel, “Infinite Jest”: “Yes, I’m paranoid — but am I paranoid enough?”
The link between travel and illness may seem self-evident but there is little hard data precisely defining the risk. A wealth of research has documented the swarming mass of microscopic meanies that hitch a ride on us as we travel. Scientists have swabbed everything from taxicabs to hotel remote controls for analysis. Outbreaks of influenza, measles, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, tuberculosis and smallpox have been reported on commercial airliners since 1946. The Sept. 11 attacks provided a tantalizing piece of evidence. The flu season arrived 13 days later than normal in 2001, perhaps because the government shut down the air transport system (a k a the germ transport system).
Before you shut your windows, lock your doors, cancel your Expedia account and download videoconferencing software, remember that all these risks can be mitigated. Unless you have an open wound, the germs you collect on your hands cannot enter your body easily unless you touch your eyes, nose or mouth. But that is easier said than done! The average person touches their mouths and noses about 200 times a day. A good cleaning with soap and water — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing your hands for about 50 seconds, the time it takes to hum two choruses of “Happy Birthday” — or a drop of hand sanitizer does the trick in most cases. But that only wipes the slate clean, providing little protection after that moment. Seasoned travelers sanitize early and often. (Researchers pooh-pooh the idea that too much cleanliness will weaken an adult’s immune system. The bottom line: That which does not kill me can make me sick.)
Despite their best efforts, even the most vigilant travelers will get sick. The average American gets slightly more than two colds per year. I travel some 200,000 miles a year and get a cold every couple of years, sometimes longer. Pass the hand sanitizer please!