Feeling sick? Stay off the train!

While the nation suffers from the worst flu outbreak in years, germs are getting a free ride on public transportation

The current influenza outbreak is the worst since the country was hit by the swine flu in November 2009, according to the capital region’s flu committee.

Some emergency rooms in the Copenhagen area have been handling up to 250 calls per hour from sick patients, most of them complaining of influenza-like symptoms.

"We have not experienced anything like it since 2009," Jens Lundgren, head of the flu committee, told Jyllands-Posten newspaper. “We have had minor outbreaks, but nothing that has drawn on emergency doctors to this extent. "

Lundgren warned that the flu should be taken seriously.

"If flu develops into pneumonia, for example, it can be serious and potentially life-threatening," he said. 

Lundgren advised sufferers to stay home, both for their own health and to prevent infecting those around them.

A prime spot to pick up the germs that cause the flu is on public transportation.

The buttons, handles, knobs and other surfaces inside buses, trains and the Metro are teeming with bacteria that passengers carry away with them on their hands every time they ride, according to a recent study by Rådet for Bedre Hygiejne, the hygiene council, and Michael René from Metropol professional college. Two of twenty samples taken from the blue buttons on the doors of S-trains – ten from the outside and ten from inside the cars – showed positive results for the presence of intestinal bacteria.

Intestinal bacteria are not necessarily harmful, but their presence reveals that unwanted bacteria lurk on the trains that could cause the norovirus known as 'Roskilde sickness' or other infectious diseases.

"People tend to forget that there are bacteria on the trains,” Lars Münter, the project manager for Rådet for Bedre Hygiejne, told Politiken newspaper. “If we were better at recognising that it is there, and took the proper precautions, we could drastically cut down on the number of infectious diseases in Denmark.”

Münter pointed out that 40 percent of Danes do not always wash their hands after using the toilet, according to a recent study.

While two positive results out of twenty samples may seem low, Münter said that the test was done when there was frost outside and many passengers were wearing gloves and mittens.

Studies suggest that the risk of getting infections increases when people spend more time inside and closer together, like when riding on public transport.

Professor Allan Randrup Thomsen from the University of Copenhagen said that the body is constantly fighting one infection or the other and developing immunities.

“Studies show that people who normally do not use public transportation often become infected,“ Thomsen told Politiken. “Maybe those who frequently use public transport build up immunity.”

Thomsen warned that viruses transmitted when a sick person coughs or sneezes can make others sick, and advised sneezing into your arm rather than into your hand to prevent transferring the infection.

"A general awareness that you do not want to transmit infection to others when you have a cold just makes sense,” said Thomsen, who also advised staying home when you feel sick.

All of the experts agreed that simply being diligent about hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of diseases.

"Bacteria have to move from point A to point B,” said Münter. “They are not malicious and do not jump on you, so the best thing anyone can do is to remove them from their hands.”

Münter advised washing hands every time there was a change of location – when you get to work from the train, leave the daycare, switch computers or go to a restaurant.

"If you've been working in the garden and get dirt on your hands, you would not start cutting salami without washing up first,” said Münter. “Use the same method every time you move from one place to the other, because even though you can not see it, yours hands can be dirty.”

Despite the many cases of influenza being reported, the Statens Serum Institut is not calling the current outbreak a flu pandemic.