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Airline seats
Airlines shun DVT researchers

Panorama Reporter Andy Davies asks why it took airlines so long to provide clearer warnings to passengers about deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in the face of mounting evidence.

Indications of a link between DVT and passenger immobility on long haul flights emerged as long ago as 1968. But in the absence of extensive studies, some airline medical officers regard the link as unproven.

Emirates medical officer Dr Alastair Beatton, asked whether advice to passengers to exercise was because of DVT, says, "Not necessarily, all right? We haven't linked immobility and DVT together, all right?" He goes on to say that "there is an association but there is no definite link."

Whilst a Lufthansa medical officer says that passengers at particular risk, including those on the pill, smokers and those with a genetic condition called Factor V Leiden which affects one in twenty people, have a duty to inform themselves.

In all, five scientists have told Panorama how their separate requests to study potentially fatal blood clots among long haul passengers were turned down or ignored by dozens of airlines.

British Airways planes
BA declined to help Professor Shuster in his research
Professor Sam Shuster of Newcastle University, asked British Airways in 1996 for access to their passengers to research the subject. BA declined his offer in a letter.

Amongst their reasons, it stated, "Most passengers do not wish to get involved and are simply keen to get on with their journey. There is the added difficulty that we have to tread carefully because as a commercial organisation we have no wish to imply that flying might be bad for one's health."

Revealing study

However, some studies have been possible. The Lancet recently published John Scurr's study which found that DVT may affect as many as one in 10 long-haul passengers, although most of those would suffer no ill effects.

John Scurr is considered to be one of the world's leading experts on DVT. He estimates it may kill as many as 1,000 UK travellers each year.

BA's medical officer David Flower says the airline acknowledged the probable association between flying and DVT in the early 1990s, when it began issuing exercise advice to passengers.

But "deep vein thrombosis" is not mentioned in its in-flight "well-being" pamphlet. Dr Flower says, "English is not the mother tongue of many of our passengers, and therefore what we have to write is language that is understandable to the majority of our passengers."

He goes on to say that to have called DVT "a potentially fatal blood clot" would be "confusing and alarmist" to passengers.

Airline responsibility

They [the airlines] should have addressed the issue earlier

Dr John Cruikshank
Dr John Cruickshank, who himself suffered a dangerous pulmonary embolism after flying in 1988, believes the airlines have a duty to inform passengers of the dangers. But, his offer to make a safety video for airlines was turned down.

He says, "The database is now so overwhelming in favour of the linkage - as with smoking, cancer, heart attacks and stroke - that there comes a point that you must say: 'OK, it's not pukka science, but we have to address the issue.' And I think they [the airlines] should have addressed the issue earlier."

Since the high-profile death of Emma Christoffersen last October, some airlines have finally been responding to the issue of DVT. For the first time ever the words thrombosis and blood clots are beginning to appear in their literature.

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