PortCities London

Ports and disease

SARS and beyond

Disease in the age of air travel

In the age of air travel, diseases can move with astonishing speed. Whereas ships could carry diseases from country to country within weeks, passenger jets now carry people anywhere in the world within a day.

Occasionally, diseases such as cholera or typhus - rare in Europe and the Americas but still common in some countries - are brought to the west by individual travellers. Generally, these cases are soon contained and do not cause epidemics.


STOLport. Short take off and landing airport.
View full size imageLondon City Airport. © NMM

The potential dangers of air travel as a means of carrying disease were highlighted in 2003, with the international spread of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).

This disease seems to have emerged in southern China towards the end of 2002. Only air travel can explain the rapid appearance of SARS in nearly 20 countries.

Although most cases occurred in South East Asia, people also developed SARS in Canada and Europe. Before mass travel by air, SARS would have taken much longer to spread abroad, and would have moved through the seaports.

Fortunately, SARS was less infectious and less deadly than many diseases, but other crises may occur in the future. In a world where people and goods move across borders, no country can try to isolate itself as in the days of quarantine. Only close international co-operation can meet the challenges posed by infectious disease.


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