Is it just another flu? Is the vaccine safe? Has the second wave peaked -- or is it just getting started? Are we taking it too seriously, or becoming too complacent?
It's no wonder we're so confused about the notorious H1N1 virus (or "swine flu"). It's hard to keep up with the latest news, and we've still got months of media baggage behind us -- including travel horror stories of quarantines and restrictions. If you're planning a winter getaway or traveling for the holidays to visit family and friends, you've likely got additional questions too. What screening procedures (and accompanying delays) might you face? Is quarantine still a possibility? What's the state of the outbreak at your destination?
As usual, governments are warning travellers to "know before you go". Here's how you can avoid any flu-related hassles:
Read up on international policies. Like it or not, we're part of the outbreak and other countries have the right to turn a critical eye on travellers from infected places. Many countries have implemented screenings and examinations at airports, and may even quarantine passengers (as well as people who are traveling with them) for seven days. Landing in a government-chosen hospital or hotel can easily ruin a trip.
Some experts suggest that quarantines haven't been a big issue this fall (since the virus is already widely spread), but screening procedures can also cause significant delays -- especially during popular travel times around holidays and festivals. You may be asked to fill out a questionnaire about your health and symptoms, and have your temperature taken.
Currently, neither the U.S. nor Canada has screening procedures in place for incoming travellers, but governments warn international travellers to find out what policies and procedures are in place at their destination before they travel. Where can you find this information?
- Read your government's travel advice for your destination, such as the Travel Report (Canada) or Country Specific Information (U.S.). Also, look for any travel alerts or special notices about H1N1 (like the Public Health Agency of Canada's H1N1 Travel Health Notice.)
- Visit your embassy's website or contact the embassy directly. (Contact information can be found through your government's travel advice.)
- Register your trip with the embassy so they can send you the latest information as it's available.
Currently, proof of inoculation against H1N1 doesn't appear to be an entry requirement to other countries, and Canada hasn't restricted travel due to H1N1.
Get insurance. Extended health coverage and trip interruption/cancellation insurance are even more important this year. Otherwise, you'll be on the hook for additional expenses if you get sick or have to be quarantined in a foreign country. (Make sure your policy covers the flu.)
Look for H1N1-related cancellation policies. Will your travel service provider allow you to change your plans if you become sick? Some carriers like VIA Rail have policies in place to allow travellers to stay home without facing any penalties, but not all providers are following suit.
Read the fine print. Know your insurance and refund policies inside and out so you understand what is and is not covered. For instance, if you have to book a pricier flight than your original, are you responsible for paying the difference? Do you need a doctor's note or proof that you've been ill? These are all details you should know before you need them.
Follow the news. The pandemic is expected to have three waves, but don't assume they'll be universal. Some places haven't fully experienced a first wave while others may already be getting over their second. Follow the local news or check with the local health department at your destination to find out what you're getting into.
It's also important to note that many areas like the tropics don't have defined flu seasons like we do, so experts aren't quite sure what to expect in those areas.
If H1N1 becomes more severe, policies will change to reflect this fact and additional precautions (like sheltering in place) may become a necessity.
Carry important contact information for your doctor as well as local emergency and medical services and your local embassy. (Of course, these are numbers you should have on hand anytime you travel.)
While your embassy can't influence or change another country's policies, offer healthcare or reimburse any expenses, they can help you find healthcare at your destination and help a friend or family member wire you money if needed.
Take the usual precautions. You know the drill -- cough and sneeze into a tissue or your sleeve, steer clear of people who are sick (as much as possible) and wash your hands frequently. Don't let your guard down just because you're on vacation or visiting friends and family -- and don't forget to pack the hand sanitizer!
In addition, government travel advice typically recommends staying away from animals -- but this advice isn't just because of H1N1. It's sound advice for avoiding injuries (think tourists getting too close to wild animals) and other health threats like rabies or H5N1 (the "avian flu").
Most importantly: do not travel if you are sick. At the very least, you'll get plenty of dirty looks from your fellow passengers -- but you're also putting them (and the people at your destination) at risk. The stress and disruption of travel won't do your body any favours, and the level of healthcare at your destination may not be up to par.
If you get sick while you're on the road, be prepared to stay put at your accommodations until you're feeling better (which could be seven days or more).
Many people see H1N1 as "just another flu", but that doesn't change the policies and procedures set up around the world to deal with this novel virus. Whatever your views on the pandemic, it's important to know what's going on where you plan to travel so you can avoid any potential problems.
ON THE WEB
For more information on staying healthy while you travel, check out these articles from 50Plus:
Sources: Canadian Foreign Affairs and International Trade travel advice, U.S. State Department International Travel website, U.S. Centers for Disease Contraol and Prevention, Public Health Agency of Canada.
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