web Musings of The Global Traveller

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Swine flu update #5 - pandemic declared

Image courtesy of BBC

Today the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared an H1N1 pandemic on the basis the flu is being spread in material numbers in both Americas (USA & Mexico) and Australia.

I previously blogged on the impacts of H1N1 (swine flu) on travel, what to do about the potential impacts and how savvy travellers can benefit.

This is an update on how the potential impacts are developing. A reminder that for medical advice or up to the minute information on the spread of swine flu, check out the World Health Organization (WHO) website. Note they call it H1N1 Influenza A instead of swine flu.

Current swine flu status

Transmission rates and death rates are similar to or lower than normal seasonal influenza levels. The majority of confirmed H1N1 cases are concentrated in a handful of countries, although 74 countries have reported it, with deaths in 7 countries.

Current impacts on travel

Travellers who contract H1N1 swine flu are impacted the most. Generally they are required to be quarantined for 3 or 7 days, and in some cases are hospitalised. The risk of this is low or very low almost everywhere. However, it can take a day or so to confirm whether someone has H1N1 or regular influenza, so many more travellers may be temporarily quarantined while tests are being performed.

There is a minor impact in many countries - health forms are being required of all arriving travellers (and in some cases also transit passengers). Thermal cameras are being used widely in airports and cruise ship terminals together with medical staff visually inspecting people as they walk past through chutes.

There is a more significant impact, on those who are well, in a few countries. Countries such as China and Australia are treating all those who travel with someone who is infected as also being infected. Now a pandemic has been declared I expect many more countries will adopt a similar approach. There is not much you can do to protect against thus short of not travelling at all.

Some countries are restricting travel from affected areas. For example there are some reports that China has stopped issuing visas to Mexicans, Americans and Australians; or lengthening the application process to try to screen out those who are unwell.


International travel will be more risky in respect of the potential to be caught up in quarantine or travel restrictions even if fully healthy. At the moment it is not significant enough to stop me travelling - I have several international trips booked for the next few weeks which I fully intend to take. However I am reviewing transfer times between flights with a view to making sure these are long enough for possible delays (eg because of the extra health screening on arrival).

As the effects of cancellations and reduced bookings are now widespread (not just Mexico), and adding to the travel downturn caused by the economic climate, great sales are continuing. There have been fantastic airfares and hotel room rates (and cruise rates too although I don't follow these) - in some cases the best in a decade or more.

Since I don't think this is sustainable, I expect to see more airline schedule changes cancelling more flights. Keep an eye open in your mailbox, and also check the airline website and itinerary lookup sites in case the airline fails to notify you. My recent post on how I dealt with a flight cancellation includes how to use the itinerary lookup sites. Hotels are in a more difficult position as they cannot easily reduce supply - they must either keep rates low or through in more benefits to attract travellers, or temporarily shut down.

I'm continuing to keep an eye on bargains and where practical ensuring my travel plans can cater for a modest delay entering or leaving a country. It is, however, difficult to allow for a potential enforced quarantine if someone else on your flight or ship or in your hotel is confirmed to have H1N1 swine flu - especially as the length varies by country from a few days to a week or more. Insurance coverage continues to be important.

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