Text by Keith Rutowski, updated 05/06/2009
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still recommending that travelers avoid nonessential trips to Mexico, the supposed epicenter of the current swine influenza outbreak. Swine flu, or H1N1, is a respiratory disease in pigs caused by type A influenza, which is regularly spread among pigs, and, less commonly, between humans. However, according to the World Health Organization, the current outbreak of the disease is responsible for 1,516 confirmed infections worldwide and 17 deaths, including a toddler boy and a 33-year-old woman in the U.S.
Decidedly less severe cases of infection are continuing to show up outside of Mexico—including in Canada, Spain, and the United Kingdom—and many countries are taking action to prevent the spread of the virus. The U.S. has stepped up its border patrol. Southeast Asia is utilizing thermal scanners to check for fever at airports. Russia, Hong Kong, and Taiwan all said they would quarantine travelers displaying symptoms of the virus.
Media accounts vary on the overall severity of the current outbreak, so let’s review some of the basic facts about the virus and what travelers can do should they need to travel to an affected area. The disease is transmitted by exposure to infected animals and through human-to-human contact such as sneezing and coughing (not by consuming properly cooked pork, according to the CDC). Therefore, experts advise individuals to obey strict rules of hygiene and to seek immediate medical attention if one should exhibit flu-like symptoms (i.e. fever, lethargy, lack of appetite). And while there is no vaccine to prevent swine flu, the CDC recommends that individuals needing to travel to Mexico bring along oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza)—the same drugs used to combat the regular flu.
Speaking of the regular flu, you may be wondering how swine flu stacks up against it? In terms of sheer numbers, swine flu still seems to be considerably less critical. CNN has recently pointed out the fact that while swine flu shouldn’t be taken lightly, seasonal influenza kills 36,000 people in the U.S. each year. Since January, there have already been 13,000 deaths due to regular flu complications. However, the vague nature of this flu strand makes it imperative that individuals who must travel to Mexico continue to update themselves as the situation develops and that they exercise caution when abroad and once they return home.