Ask LH: Can I Catch Diseases From Stuff Sent In The Mail?

Hi Lifehacker, I often buy goods from companies that ship from Hong Kong or China. I saw an article recently that said there is new strain of deadly flu in those countries. My question is: am I risking importing a potentially deadly disease by mail order direct to my home? Medical websites seem to vary on whether such a disease could be transmitted in the mail. Thanks, Paranoid Shopper

Dear PS,

I believe you’re thinking of the H7N9 avian flu strain which has been causing international headlines for a year or so. To date, there have been around 70 recorded fatalities in China and Hong Kong, which is nowhere near epidemic levels despite all the media hysteria.

Currently the virus cannot be transmitted between humans. This may change in future mutations, but for now you have nothing to fear from this particular virus — a factory worker could barf his lungs out directly inside your parcel and you still wouldn’t contract the disease.

It’s also worth noting that commercial products are often treated with fumigation chemicals such as methyl bromide (FWIW). Conditions also tend to be sanitary in most factories around the world; if only to reduce sick leave among workers.

In addition, most airbourne cold and flu germs are incapable of surviving for more than a few days outside of the human body. In other words, by the time an overseas parcel reaches you the risk of infection should be practically non-existent.

With that said, it pays to be mindful around any objects that have been handled by strangers. This is just a matter of using common sense. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth or nose after opening an unfamiliar parcel — that obviously goes for both foreign and local products. Essentially, use the same level of caution you would during the winter flu season and try not to be too paranoid.

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