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Minimizing Infectious Disease Risk

Here’s what’s going on to stop the spread of infectious diseases such as Ebola.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Caryn Eve Murray
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The fearsome spread of infectious disease has gone hand-in-hand with travel and mobility as far back as the 14th century, when plague landed in the ports of Europe aboard trading ships and began its deadly journey inland. Now, several lifetimes and continents away from that vast sweep of Black Death, West Africa struggles with the often fatal Ebola virus, also known as hemorrhagic fever, Saudi Arabia battles Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Caribbean islands wrestle with the chikungunya virus, a mosquito-borne ailment once found in Africa, Asia and the Indian Ocean but newly emergent as of late last year in the Americas.

With fear nearly as contagious as some of these deadly ailments, business travelers, leisure tourists and even religious pilgrims have been fortunate to have access to what experts call the most effective inoculations known to the modern world: a combination dosage of awareness and information. As such, they say, travelers can be expected to keep traveling.

And that’s not an unwise decision at all, said Dr. Louis Weiss, professor of medicine and pathology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “Look at the resources available for safe travel and apply them,” he said. “There is a wonderful CDC [Centers for Disease Control] site, and the World Health Organization has its own site for information. We live in an Internet age.” Weiss said travelers should equip themselves with "vaccines to protect against diseases such as Hepatitis A and typhoid, medication to prevent malaria and insect repellent for diseases transmitted by biting insects."

“To travel is always a risk and there are really two risks in this,” said travel security consultant Peter Tarlow, president and founder of Tourism & More. “One is to the traveler himself and the other is to the society to which the traveler is returning. Think about the fact that the Indians were pretty much decimated by European travelers coming through this country with measles and smallpox in the same way Europeans were decimated by the black plague in Europe…..Historically you could say there has never been a time that migrants have not carried disease.”

And in modern times, Tarlow said, “whenever we move people, we take a risk. It can be a very minor risk, like someone having a cold, or it can be a major one.”

As such, the industry should take a proactive risk-minimizing role, with airlines, tour operators and cruise ships passing along the agencies’ advisories and public health messages, said Dr. Lin H.Chen, assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Travel Medicine Center at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass.

“Be proactive so that crews are alert to an outbreak situation so they can protect themselves, minimize transmission to others and recognize possible symptoms,” she wrote in a recent email. “Some sources such as Shoreland and iJet may recommend precautions before CDC and WHO and should have sound basis.” And, Chen said, members of the industry should respect a traveler’s right to cancel or postpone trips to regions under siege.

Weiss expressed confidence in the CDC and WHO advisories and the travel education they provide, especially from a preventative standpoint.

“They are going to restrict travel when it is clear it is reaching an epidemic proportion that is dangerous,” he said. He noted, however, that many of the countries with the serious viral outbreaks are not tourism destinations anyway. “I don’t think you are going to have leisure travel there, they are not main countries where people go for safari.”

CDC’s travelers’ advisories do respond directly to outbreaks, said Sharon Hoskins, a health communication specialist at CDC. “The impact that infectious disease has on travel, from a public health perspective, is dependent upon many factors; among them, the type of pathogen, host susceptibility, transmission rates, morbidity rates,” she wrote in an email.

Indeed, said Weiss, “when people ask me travel questions I don’t recommend that people not travel. I tell people they can travel.” And he recommends proper immunizations, hygiene and other precautions. “Fear is not an excuse not to do things,” he said. “People need to practice safe travel.”

The industry also needs to recognize more and more the interrelationship of public health and economics, said Tarlow. “Tourism cannot exist if people are sick. Nobody goes to a place to get sick…Travel industry professionals need to be aware of the fact that their industry is all-encompassing. They need to think through current and potential health problems. That doesn’t mean panic, it means thinking through ‘ do we have connections with a local hospital? Do we provide doctors with information about diseases around the world?’

“I would like to see the tourism industry have seminars and have a symbiotic relationship with the medical industry,” he said. “The word hospitality comes from the same word as hospital – and that shows you the interrelationship between health and tourism.”

Caryn Eve Murray
Associate Editor
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: Caryn Eve Murray is a freelance writer and an assistant editor on the news desk at Newsday on Long Island. During her tenure as a business writer for New York Newsday, she covered the city's small business community for which she won the Distinguished Business Reporting Award of Excellence from the New York Newspaper Publishers Association. She has also been a feature columnist and writer and has ...
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