As swine flu spreads it looks likely that travellers will experience more checks and delays at airports, but there’s also a higher risk of infection, warns Dr Richard Dawood, medical director of the Fleet Street Travel Clinic in London, and editor of Travellers Health.
“There is no doubt that travel does increase exposure to respiratory viruses and that anyone who becomes unwell away from home may have reduced access to good medical care including antiviral drugs.”
According to the World Health Organisation, the new H1N1 (swine flu) virus has spread as far in six weeks as past pandemic influenza viruses had spread in more than six months. Dawood added: “I think that as the pandemic evolves, travellers will be in an increasingly difficult position.”
However, good personal hygiene will reduce the risk of infection, advised Dawood. “Maximum attention to hand hygiene with travel-sized alcohol hand gel is the simplest and easiest precaution.” He also warned that as the situation evolves travellers may have to consider packing facemasks and Tamiflu medication as standard.
Many airports are now screening passengers arriving on international flights, with more likely to follow as the virus spreads. For example, the Indian embassy has published the following statement on its website: “All passengers travelling to India will be screened at international airports in India on their arrival. This will also involve quarantine and even hospitalization, if detected with any symptoms connected with the flu.”
Passengers arriving in India are being asked to fill out a form stating whether they have been in countries where swine flu cases have been confirmed, and if they have displayed any flu-like symptoms in the previous 10 days.
The National Travel Health Network and Centre website has further advice on the potential health screening of international travellers, saying that:
“Screening may consist of passing through a scanning device that checks your temperature, directly checking your temperature with an oral or ear thermometer, completing forms about your health, and providing details about your travel itinerary.
“If you are ill with a fever or influenza-like illness (ILI) (fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue), you may be isolated, have a medical examination, be tested for pandemic (H1N1) 2009 virus, or be hospitalised and given treatment. If a travelling companion or someone on your flight is ill or found to have pandemic influenza, you may be quarantined for a period of time.”
Airlines are also encouraging staff to be vigilant for possible cases – a British Airways spokesperson said: “If someone presents at check-in who looks unwell for any reason, we’ve got a 24-hour telemedical team who we can call… The medical team will speak to the customer, and ascertain their symptoms and then they will advise whether they consider them to be fit to fly.”
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has published general advice on swine flu for travellers before, during and after travel, as well as advice on how the virus may affect travel to specific countries. The website also provides a free phone number for British Nationals currently overseas.
Report by Sara Turner