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'Economy Class Syndrome' Back in the News

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Jan. 12, 2001 -- Joining a growing list of airlines, Singapore Airlines announced plans Friday to warn travelers about the risk of developing potentially fatal blood clots during long-haul flights.

Singapore's national carrier joins British Airways and Australia's two biggest airlines in issuing brochures on travel health tips to counter deep vein thrombosis (DVT), also known as "economy class syndrome." The condition may occur when people develop blood clots in the deep veins of their legs after sitting through long flights, presumably in cramped airplane seats.

According to the Singapore airlines web site, health tips will be displayed at check-in counters and on board the aircraft, where they will be printed on laminated cards placed in each seat pocket. These tips will advise passengers how to relieve stress, minimize jet lag, and reduce the risk of motion sickness, heart conditions, and DVT.

Affecting millions of people each year, these blood clots can travel to the lungs or other areas, causing severe organ damage or death. Such clots have been reported after automobile trips and even after evenings at the theater, but long airplane flights pose a greater risk.

Still, most medical experts here and abroad contend this condition has more to do with passengers sitting still for too long than with cramped seating conditions on airplanes.

"It's fair to say that common sense goes a long way, and airlines are doing what they can to provide recommendations for their passengers that will promote and insure a comfortable travel experience," says Michael Wascom, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association in Washington, D.C, a trade group that represents major U.S. passenger and cargo airlines.

"This particular medical ailment has not been widely reported among U.S. travelers," he tells WebMD. "It's not an epidemic."

Wascom, along with medical experts, says that DVT actually is caused by remaining in the same position without moving, not by too-small airplane seats.

"When you sleep at night, if you sleep on one of your arms, at some point you will lose feeling in your arm," he says. "It's the same concept."

A famous recent episode occurred in 1994 when former Vice President Dan Quayle developed a leg clot that traveled to his lung soon after a series of airplane trips. And researchers from the Hospital Pasteur in Nice, France, have reported that travelers who sit for more than five hours on planes are more than four times as likely to develop blood clots in their leg than nontravelers

In London, at least 30 people have died of blood clots in the past three years after arriving from lengthy flights at London's Heathrow Airport, according to a study conducted at Ashford Hospital in southeast England. Just this past October, newspapers reported that a 28-year-old women flying from Sydney to London developed DVT and collapsed and died after reaching Heathrow.

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