Thursday, November 12, 2009

How Travelers Can Steer Clear Of Swine Flu

travellers insurance

For some travelers, such as those on business or with pre-paid vacations, "non-essential travel" is not part of the vocabulary.

But H1N1 is. At last count, so-called swine flu has spread to 199 countries and caused 6,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. With news of otherwise healthy youngsters and pregnant women catching the virus, it likely makes parents want to keep their kids from school and professionals telecommute. Still, for those who have to fly, there are best practices to minimize exposure to the pandemic.

Before any trip, research is essential. "The first priority is information," says Dr. Myles Druckman, a vice president for International SOS, a medical consulting firm. "You have to do a local analysis of what's going on in that country."

A traveler should learn about the prevalence of H1N1 in the region and the state of the country's health care system, including what kind of resources might be available in the event of a health emergency. For executives visiting developing nations, where health care might be inadequate, one should consider bringing anti-viral medication like Tamiflu, which may be provided by a company's medical coordinator or personal doctor. Tamiflu is no magic bullet for H1N1, but when taken within 48 hours of developing symptoms it can reduce the severity and duration of the illness.

With swine flu paranoia sweeping airports, travelers should also be prepared for unexpected inconveniences. If a passenger exhibits signs of illness, the airline could prevent the person from boarding the plane, or authorities at the destination could quarantine the passenger. According to the U.S. State Department, China quarantined thousands of U.S. citizens from May to August of this year -- some, who merely sat close to passengers with flu-like symptoms, were forced to stay in "specially designated" hotels for roughly seven days.

Since September, quarantines have been less frequent, but it remains a major concern for travelers, especially those who need chronic medication. Make sure you bring an extra supply of your personal medications in case your stay is elongated.

Traveling in the midst of a pandemic might make add-on insurance a compelling option. Dr. Jerome Levine, of Hackensack University Medical Center, warns of the cottage industry that is making money off swine flu fears.

"A lot of the travel agents are pushing people to get traveler's protection,” he says. “My only worry is: Be careful and read the fine print because many of those protection plans specifically exclude illness due to pandemic or epidemic."

Even if a provider accepts H1N1 claims, coverage varies dramatically. Some will accept claims if you or your traveling companions contract the flu, while others may not reimburse you for losses related to quarantines.

Of course, if you are feeling ill, the obvious rule is: Don't fly. "At what point do you say uh-oh I better stay home? Certainly at the onset of a fever," says Dr. Levine. "If you're already abroad, don't go out, stay in the hotel room."

Whether you're feeling healthy or ill, good hygiene is an obvious but fundamental rule. Avoid rubbing mucus membranes like eyelids or nostrils; wash hands frequently, or use alcohol-based hand sanitizers; and if you have to sneeze or cough, use a tissue. If you suspect that someone has H1N1, Dr. Druckman advises staying at least three to six feet away. While your options may be limited on a plane, it is acceptable to politely ask your fellow passengers to use tissues or to discretely ask a flight attendant for a new seat. Airplanes may seen like terrifying Petri dishes for germs, but the risk of contracting swine flu on a short flight is low and many of the newer aircrafts are equipped with filter systems.

If you want extra protection, you could purchase a face mask, but choose wisely. The common surgical mask may be popular, but it offers little protection.

"It will prevent some material coming in; if you're coughing it may have some prevention … but the fact is the virus is so small that it goes through the pores in that surgical mask," says Dr. Levine. The most effective and accessible option, according to many health professionals, is the N95 Respirator mask. It should fit snugly across yoru face and is supposed to filter out 95% of small particles when used properly. Both Drs. Druckman and Levine recommend it, but the CDC warns on its Web site that “limited data is available on their effectiveness.”

Be prepared, be hygienic, but don't panic. The swine flu is a legitimate pandemic, but, according to the CDC, seasonal influenza kills 36,000 people in the country every year, while H1N1 is still a fraction of that.