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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