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Swine Flu Outbreak Prompts Worldwide Travel Warnings, Casts Gloom Over Travel, Tourism and Airline Industries

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World HeartbeatSince the announcement of a swine flu outbreak in and around Mexico City five days ago, governments around the world have warned their citizens against travel to affected countries in the hope of limiting the spread of the illness.

Reports began surfacing on April 23 of an outbreak of a virulent form of the flu centered in Mexico City, which has so far sickened 1,600 people and killed 103 around the country.

Another 40 cases have been identified in parts of the U.S., and the bug is thought to have spread as far away as Canada, New Zealand, Israel, France, and Spain.

Though major health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta and the World Health Organization (WHO) have not issued official travel alerts, they have suggested that that nations “intensify surveillance for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness” which has prompted governments around the world to take steps to ensure that the bug does not take hold in their respective countries.

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On Monday the European Union’s Health Commissioner Andorra Vassiliou began advising citizens of its 27 member nations to avoid nonessential travel to areas of the U.S. and Mexico with outbreaks of flu. Though the EU stopped short of an official advisory, several other nations such as Hong Kong and the Philippines have issued travel warnings.

Doctor wearing maskRussia, Hong Kong and Taiwan have all announced that they will quarantine visitors from the U.S. and Mexico who show any flu-like symptoms. India plans to start screening all visitors from Mexico and the U.S., plus those coming from Canada, New Zealand, Spain, Britain, and France.

Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines will evaluate all travelers with thermal scanners to check for signs of fever. The 2003 SARS epidemic left these and other Asian nations well-equipped to handle another possible disease epidemic.

In the U.S., President Barack Obama said the outbreak was a “cause for concern,” but he urged Americans not to become alarmed. The Department of Health has declared a public health emergency, but Obama said that this was simply a precautionary step to ensure that resources can be allocated quickly in case the government needs to respond.

At border crossings around the U.S., face mask-clad customs agents have started checking people for signs of illness. Major airports in cities such as Los Angeles and Pittsburgh have also begun monitoring incoming international passengers and looking for symptoms of flu, and will isolate those who seem ill.

Many airlines, including American, United, Continental, US Airways, Mexicana, and Air Canada said that they will waive their usual penalties for changing reservations for anyone traveling to, from or through Mexico.

Some media outlets are reporting that the State Department, which hasn’t officially issued a travel alert for U.S. citizens, will probably do so later today. Officials from the WHO are also meeting today to decide if the alert level should be raised higher in light of the increase in flu cases worldwide.

Getting a shotThe epidemic is bound to deal a harsh blow to the already struggling travel industry, which has seen a wave of cancellations over the last few days as travelers opt to stay at home instead of risk illness.

Tour operators from America to Germany to Australia are voluntarily postponing scheduled tours of Mexico, and thousands of individual travelers in the U.S. have decided against trips to popular resort areas of the country amid uncertainty about where and when the epidemic will strike next.

Hotel and airline stocks plunged Monday as traders feared a repeat of the 2003 SARS epidemic, which wreaked havoc in the travel industry. In 10 minutes of trading on Monday morning U.S. airline stocks lost $5 billion in value.

One sector of the industry that does not seem to be affected for now is cruise lines, which report no plans to alter itineraries nor cancel cruises due to the outbreak. All the major cruise companies have said they will continue to make port stops in Mexico while monitoring the threat situation.

By Karen Elowitt for PeterGreenberg.com.

Related links: Agence France-Presse, CDC Swine Flu, CDC Mexico Advisory, Associated Press, World Health Organization, New York Times, Reuters-UK, USA Today, Reuters, The Economist

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