Travel Tips

H1N1 Swine Flu Returning With a Vengeance?

Locations in this article:  Mexico City, Mexico

Swine fluA report issued by a White House science and technology panel has raised fears over an H1N1 influenza resurgence this fall, but what does it mean for travelers?

The report, issued to the president on August 7, claims that while accurate predictions are impossible, a resurgence could infect up to 50 percent of the U.S. population this fall.

This could lead to as many as 1.8 million hospitalizations and cause between 30,000 and 90,000 deaths among Americans, particularly in children and young adults.

(For reference, seasonal flu kills about 35,000 Americans annually.) The outbreak, according to the report, could occur at the beginning of the September school term and peak in mid-October.

Officials at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) say that travelers who are at a highest risk for complications from H1N1 infection are children under age 5, and adults age 65 and older, children under 18 who are receiving long-term aspirin therapy, pregnant women, and adults and children with underlying medical issues such as diabetes, HIV/AIDS, or chronic pulmonary or cardiovascular disorders.

Although it was the CDC that temporarily advised against non-essential travel to Mexico during the original swine flu outbreak in April, travelers who are healthy are being encouraged to go forth with their travel plans but pack a good dose of common sense. That includes taking a medical kit with basic supplies, purchasing additional medical insurance if you’re traveling overseas, and staying up to date with all routine vaccinations, including the seasonal influenza vaccine.

Virus closeupAccording to the CDC, the 2009 H1N1 vaccine is expected to be available by mid-October, and can be administered at the same time as the seasonal vaccine. Priority will be given to those in high-risk groups, with the general population to follow based on availability.

If you develop any flu-like symptoms before departing on a trip, you are advised to postpone your travel plans for at least seven days after you get sick or 24 hours after you stop having symptoms, whichever is longer. While on the road, wash your hands often, use alcohol-based hand gels that have at least 60 percent alcohol content, and cough or sneeze into a tissue or your sleeve—not your hands. Upon returning, closely monitor your health for seven days.

If you purchase travel insurance, read the fine print. Many plans have a clause that excludes epidemics or pandemics, particular for policies purchased after April 24, 2009, which was when the H1N1 outbreak became a “foreseen” or “known” event. Also, find out if your travel insurance plan allows you to cancel for “any” reason—in many cases, simply canceling based on fear of contracting the disease may not be covered or may carry major restrictions.

The World Health Organization isn’t recommending any travel restrictions since the H1N1 virus has already reached pandemic levels, and limiting travel would have little effect on stopping the spread. The rate of infection has dropped in North and South America and Europe, but is on the rise in parts of Asia.

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However, the State Department has issued an alert for those traveling to China from affected areas such as the U.S., warning that they may be quarantined if they exhibit fever or flu-like symptoms. Currently, the alert is set to expire September 30, 2009.

One pillTravelers should be aware that while most travel providers have resumed normal itineraries to affected areas, they may need to be flexible. As we saw with the outbreak this past spring, cruise lines may change their itineraries at the last minute and aren’t obligated to issue credits or refunds to travelers.

U.S. airlines are do not have any formal policies to deal with rebooking or cancellation in the case of H1N1-related disruptions. Currently, there are no special measures in place to refuse boarding to travelers who show signs of the disease. However, airlines such as Virgin America and Southwest removed pillows and blankets from their flights as a precautionary measure. Virgin America is providing pre-wrapped, sterilized pillows and blankets on red-eye flights, and offers antibacterial hand wipes and gel on planes and at airports for crew and guest use.

And, of course it had to happen … researchers have just released an iPhone application that tracks and reports outbreaks of the virus in their area. The “Outbreaks Near Me” application uses GPS to pinpoint reported cases of illness wherever the user is traveling.

By Sarika Chawla for

Related links:, MSNBC,, NY Daily News

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