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Bound for Homeland or Hometown? Figure the Flu Into Holiday Travel

LA Garment & Citizen, Opinion, Jerry Sullivan Posted: Nov 25, 2009

Add the H1N1 virus also known as the "swine flu" to long check-in lines, bad weather, flight delays and the rest of the concerns that typically greet holiday travelers at this time of year.

The concerns have grown in recent weeks as indicators have pointed to higher numbers of cases of H1N1 compared to a year ago. Some medical professionals have attributed the apparent increase to the H1N1 virus arriving in force just as the regular flu season approaches. They have also cited delays in getting sufficient dosages of vaccines to various areas of the country. Numerous H1N1 vaccination sites have still drawn long lines in Los Angeles in recent weeks, and public health officials continue efforts to warn locals about the dangers of the virus.

But should the possibility of contracting the H1N1 virus prevent anyone from traveling to see family or friends for Thanksgiving?

Should fears about the flu keep folks from taking a trip for Christmas or Hanukkah?

Not if you are an otherwise healthy adult under the age of 65, according to Dr. Byron Williams, director of infectious control at White Memorial Medical Center in the Boyle Heights district east of Downtown.

"I would say [that you should] only alter your travel plans if you're [already] ill with the flu," Williams said.

Williams said that otherwise healthy individuals have as much chance of contracting H1N1 whether or not they travel.

"Exposure to the flu can happen on a plane, it can happen in a hospital, it can happen on the street, it can happen in a grocery store," he said.

Williams nevertheless urged holiday travelers to be aware of the H1N1 flu strain, which is highly contagious and has already spread to locales throughout the U.S. Yet he noted that the spread of the virus is the main reason that the chance of getting H1N1 is no greater on an airplane than anywhere else people gather.

Vaccinations remain the best defense against the virus, according to medical professional. But Williams and others view good hygiene as a key secondary defense for travelers and anyone else.

"Wash your hands," said Williams. "Try to keep your hands away from your nose and mouth if you feel sick."

That might be simple stuff, but it's also effective and too often overlooked according to Williams.

"Good hygiene practice is a fundamental and often taken-for-granted practice," he added.

Medical professionals generally take a more cautious view of travel plans for anyone who is experiencing flu-like symptoms, has chronic illnesses, adults over the age of 65, children less than 5 years old, and pregnant women. Officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control are urging travelers in those categories considered to have increased risk of complications from flu to consider postponing travel.

Officials of the federal agency advise anyone who is in a high-risk category to talk to a doctor about whether to take flu medications along in case they develop the flu but can't get medical attention right away. Anyone who is considered high risk or is experiencing flu-like symptoms is urged to cancel travel plans in order to keep airports and airplanes from becoming H1N1 infection breeding grounds.

Visit White Memorial Medical Center's website at whitememorial.com on the Internet for more information in Spanish and English on the H1N1 virus; visit the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health website at lapublichealth.org or call the 2-1-1 telephone line for more dates and locations for H1N1 vaccination clinics and other information in English, Spanish, Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Farsi, Khmer, Korean, Russian, Tagalog and Vietnamese.

Jerry Sullivan is editor of the L.A. Garment & Citizen.

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