Who’s afraid of Swine Flu?

Illustration of antigenic shift

Image via Wikipedia

When the H1N1 flu emerged in Mexico earlier this year, fear of global pandemic rivalling the 1918 flu outbreak that killed an estimated 50 – 100 million people caused travellers to cancel their vacations and most remaining foreigners fled the country. In the first month alone, an estimated one billion dollars in lost revenues was reported and Mexico’s tourism industry was devastated.

With millions of cancelled trips, the travel industry and many travellers are certainly scared of H1N1.

As the second wave of the virus’s global jaunt is underway and being touted by the World Health Organization as possibly being the “biggest of all outbreaks the world has faced in the 21st century”, travellers’ fears seem warranted.

Yet the panic over H1N1 is not without debate.

While the very young, very old, and those with compromised immune systems have legitimate reason to be wary, healthy travellers have less reason to fear. Symptoms of H1N1 are not only similar, if not milder, than a seasonal flu virus that most of us get anyway but it is also less dangerous. The mortality rate is estimated between 0.007% and 0.045% making it no more dangerous than a standard bout of the flu. Barring a new mutation of H1N1, the relatively low mortality rate does suggest a somewhat irrational fear has infected the tourism industry.

Whether your personal views on H1N1 lean towards barricading yourself in your home and shunning human contact or you view the whole pandemic uproar as an affront to rationality and proceed with your travel plans, there are some practical precautions that can help to keep you safe.

Monitor the outbreak. The British Broadcasting Corporation has a very useful animated swine flu world map that illustrates the stages and locations of the outbreak. Journeywatch’s country pages also detail where major outbreaks have happened in the past month.

Get vaccinated. According to the WHO; “Influenza vaccines are one of the most effective ways to protect people from contracting illness during influenza epidemics and pandemics.” While you will need to contact medical authorities in your home country for details, you can read about the production and availability of H1N1 vaccines here.

Finally, you should wash your hands with the frequency of someone suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is because the doorknobs, arm rests, cutlery, elevator buttons, and even your pint of beer have all been touched by someone else and transmission of the flu is a simple process.

While the spectre of the second wave of H1N1 looms menacingly over your travel plans, some practical and simple precautions should ensure your travels are fever free. And, in context of the gastrointestinal ailments that commonly plague travellers, there are certainly benefits to everyone washing their hands a little more.

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A protest takes place somewhere in the world almost every day. What should you do if you stumble into one while you’re travelling?

ATHENS - DECEMBER 18:  A protester prepares to...

By Getty Images via Daylife

Over the past week or so there have been protests about a multitude of issues in multiple locations around the world. Climate campaigners in Copenhagen, opposition protests in Tegucigalpa, Kurdish protests in Istanbul, steel worker protests in Middlesborough, government policy protests in Guatemala, minaret protests in Switzerland, opposition protests in Havana, West Bank & Gaza, Iran, Haiti, Somaliland, Kashmir and Omdurman, Sudan. The list goes on and on.

While a large number of these protests were in places that are anyway reckoned by travellers to be risky environments, some of them were in locations that anybody might visit for a holiday or for business. Take Switzerland and Istanbul, for example.

So what should you do if you happen on a protest in a city that you are passing through? The most important thing is to act with caution and move quickly away from where the demonstrators are gathered. Protests and demonstrations anywhere can turn violent very quickly.  In some parts of the world, for example in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, this happens with monotonous regularity. By inadvertently becoming associated with a protest you can make yourself a target for riot police who, depending on their state of training, may lash out indiscriminately in order to try to control the situation.

In some countries, where police have loose ‘rules of engagement’ concerning the use of weapons and the legal system is opaque, this can land you in a lot of trouble. For example you could end up being locked up in a police cell for an indeterminate period or, worse, become critically injured in a place where the medical facilities are inadequate.

You can also reduce the chances of stumbling into an incident by keeping tabs on what’s happening in a city by speaking with hotel staff, cab drivers and local guides as you go about your day. In some countries riots happen spontaneously but elsewhere they start off as orderly demonstrations, given permission to take place by local authorities. Locals will know the locations in a city that, due to an open space or issue associated buildings, are prone to protests. Prior to departure, you can also use the map feature on the relevant country page on www.journeywatch.com to check for patterns of past protests in the city you’ll be visiting.

Finally, if you are caught up in a protest and you are unable to get away from it, you should move away from the ‘hot’ area where any violence may take place. This will reduce your chances of being injured or suffering an onslaught of water cannon or tear gas.

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Announcing a new micro-blog for travellers!

Hey there! We’re really excited to announce that we’ve just launched a micro-blog to help travel addicts (like us!) to interact and keep informed when they’re on the road. By creating a personal page and answering the question “what’s happening where you are?” you can log your journeys on a map and keep a bite sized ‘diary’ of your adventures (see the pic below).

New Picture 

In the index of countries on www.journeywatch.com, you can access travel advice for the country you’re travelling to – including the locations of major events over the last 40 days plotted on a map (see the image below) – and see who is travelling there right now.

By clicking on an ‘in-country’ traveller profile to the right of the map you can go to travellers’ pages and see for yourself what people are saying about what’s happening on the ground. So join the party, tell everyone and help create the network for travellers who like to keep informed on the move!

New Picture (1)

Living dangerously in Indonesia?

Earthquake Relief Efforts

Image by DVIDSHUB via Flickr


According to the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, it seems that anyone considering travel to Indonesia should immediately change their plans. For those already in this dangerous country, it might be best to take the next flight out. This is because travelers heading to Indonesia could encounter earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, landslides, volcanoes, terrorist attacks, general crime, communal violence, shoddy local airlines, civil unrest, as well as both swine and bird flu. Not to mention the outbreak of rabies infected monkeys on Bali. 

While most foreign governments issue similarly strong warnings, Indonesia still receives over six million visitors every year. With such a contrast between perilous warnings and millions of travellers, it can be hard to understand if your trip through the Indonesian archipelago will be a life threatening venture or a memorable holiday.

Fault lines

Take the risk of earthquakes, for example. On September 30, 2009 all hell broke loose in the West Sumatran province of Padang. A magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck the region shaking buildings to the ground, felling power lines, igniting fires, triggering landslides, and buckling roadways. The official death toll was 1,195 and included foreign nationals, many of them surfers on their way to the Mentawai Islands.

After the quake, foreign governments adjusted their advisories simply by listing the details of the quake amongst page after page of other potential risks. Some went a little further and offered advice. Australia suggested travellers contact their “tour operator to check whether tourist services have been affected” and the Brits suggested that travellers “check with your tour operator before travelling”.

While such advice is sensible, it does little to help understand or manage the risks.

For a first-hand assessment of on-the-ground conditions, I called a foreign correspondent who covered the aftermath of the Padang quake. He reported the level of infrastructure damage in Padang as a destroyed “building here, a building there, but unfortunately these buildings were main buildings in the city, like hotels, schools, a hospital”. He also had the following advice for travellers; “don’t stay in tall, medium-range hotels in Indonesia, they’re the ones most likely to collapse in a quake because there’s a good chance they were not built in accordance to any building code”.

It might be best to observe such advice. Earthquakes are a fact of life because Indonesia’s 17,500 islands straddle the edges of the Pacific, Eurasian, and Australian tectonic plates. As these plates jostle against each other, they unleash enormous geophysical violence which results in powerful earthquakes and deadly tsunamis.

While the number and frequency of quakes is a serious concern, it should simply persuade travellers to take a more proactive approach to managing their risks. Among the volumes of warnings that foreign governments issue, comes some practical advice. The Americans, in reference to the Padang quake, urged their nationals to “inform family or friends directly of their welfare and whereabouts”.

What’s happening where you are?

One way to proactively manage such risks is to use Journeywatch’s new social networking feature (http://www.journeywatch.com). Simply signup for free and you are able to post updates on your trip and plot your location on the world map. Friends and family can follow your updates and will know specifically where in the world you are. In the case of the Padang quake, consular officials from various embassies had set up temporary offices in order to assist their nationals. Should friends and family have concerns and contact your embassy, they will have a specific date and location to reference which can help put consular officials in contact with you should there be a genuine emergency.

Ultimately, earthquakes – like traffic accidents, food poisoning, and even the outbreak of rabies on Bali – are the unlikely but real dangers of travelling. Using common sense and proactively managing the risks is the best way to ensure your travels are safe. Taking terrorism as an example, while it is not possible to predict the location and time of a future attack, by looking at past trends the traveller can make an educated judgment about places that are vulnerable and then avoid such places.

If you still worry about the volume of travel warnings issued by foreign governments, the following anecdote from a recent meeting with the chargé d’affaires of a Western embassy might put things in perspective.

Amongst the usual talk of local politics, I brought up the topic of fearsome travel warnings and the chargé d’affaires smiled sheepishly and explained that they are obligated to provide a comprehensive summary of any risk their nationals might encounter. Then, with a cheeky smile, he cautioned me to be careful respiratory problems due to pollution levels and warned against getting a temporary henna tattoo, which are popular with tourists, as it might cause a rash.

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