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Most airline health emergencies are minor

January 23, 2009 | 10:31 am

More than half of all health emergencies onboard airlines in-flight involve simple fainting, according to the first study of such incidents. Stomach upsets and heart problems were a distant second and third.

A team headed by Dr. Michael Sand of the University of Bochum in Germany contacted 32 airlines seeking data about in-flight health problems between 2002 and 2007. Most did not collect such data and two that did refused to take part in the survey. But the two unnamed European airlines that participated provide a revealing picture.

Over the six-year period, the two airlines had a total of 10,189 in-flight medical problems, an average of 14 events per billion passenger-kilometers, the team reported in the journal Critical Care. They found 5,307 cases of fainting (53.5%), 926 cases of gastrointestinal upset (8.9%) and 509 cases related to a heart problem (4.9%). There were two births and 52 deaths. An in-flight diversion for medical care was required in 2.8% of the emergencies.

The authors called on airlines to keep better records of such emergencies in the future. They also noted that some airlines do not carry defibrillators onboard as part of their medical kits. "Considering the fact that cardiac conditions were the third most common condition seen in this study, patients with cardiac irregularities may profit from an on-board automatic external defibrillator," they wrote. "The same is true for patients with a suspected myocardial infarction."

-- Thomas H. Maugh II