(5 p.m. EDT) -- News sources are buzzing about the recent outbreak of a deadly swine flu that began in Mexico and has since spread across the world. With multiple cruise lines currently operating Mexican Riviera and Western Caribbean itineraries, cruise travelers are beginning to worry about whether it's safe to disembark in Mexican ports and how to stay healthy onboard. If you'll be visiting Mexico soon, or are worried about contracting swine flu in your hometown, here's everything you need to know about this new virus.
What is swine flu?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "Swine Influenza is a respiratory disease of pigs caused by type A influenza viruses that causes regular outbreaks in pigs." Recently, a variant of the virus called type A H1N1 has been found in humans. The virus contains gene segments from North American, Asian and European swine viruses, North American bird flu viruses, and human flu viruses.
Where have cases of swine flu been found?
As of May 13, 2009, 33 countries have officially reported 5,728 cases of influenza A (H1N1) infection to the World Health Organization. The U.S. has reported 3,009 laboratory confirmed cases, with three deaths. Mexico has reported 2,059 confirmed cases, with 56 deaths.
Other countries reporting laboratory confirmed cases with no deaths include Argentina (1), Australia (1), Austria (1), Brazil (8), China (3, comprising 1 in China, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and 2 in mainland China), Colombia (6), Cuba (1), Denmark (1), El Salvador (4), Finland (2), France (13), Germany (12), Guatemala (3), Ireland (1), Israel (7), Italy (9), Japan (4), Netherlands (3), New Zealand (7), Norway (2), Panama (29), Poland (1), Portugal (1), Republic of Korea (3), Spain (98), Sweden (2), Switzerland (1), Thailand (2), and the United Kingdom (68).
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms are similar to the human flu. According to the CDC, they include fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue, and possibly diarrhea and vomiting. If you already have a chronic medical condition, swine flu may cause that condition to worsen.
How is the flu transmitted?
Swine flu is transmitted from person to person, mainly through the coughing or sneezing of infected people. Spread of the virus is thought to be happening in the same way that seasonal flu spreads. But according to the CDC, at this time it not known how easily the virus spreads between people. It is not transmitted via food, such as pork or pork products.
How can I stay healthy?
The best way to protect yourself is to avoid contact with sick people. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water (or alcohol-based cleaners), and avoid touching your nose, eyes or mouth. Should you get sick, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough, and stay home from work or school to avoid spreading the flu to other people. If you need to go out in public, consider wearing a face mask.
Is there a cure?
The CDC is working on a vaccine, but it may take months to develop the inoculation. Two prescription antiviral drugs, Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir), have been shown to be effective against the flu.
Is it safe to cruise?
The CDC issued the first travel warnings for Mexico, due to swine flu. Its Web site reads: "At this time, CDC recommends that U.S. travelers avoid all nonessential travel to Mexico." The U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office is also advising against all but essential travel to Mexico at this time.
A travel "alert" posted on the U.S. Department of State's Web site repeats the CDC's recommendation. However, the U.S. Department of State has not issued a direct warning or ban against travel to Mexico.
If you contract swine flu, you may want to cancel your vacation plans for several reasons. First, the flu is easily transmitted in large groups, so in a contained environment like a cruise ship, you could easily spread the illness to many of your shipmates. Second, at least one cruise line -- Princess Cruises -- has said that it will isolate (and treat, of course) passengers with suspected swine flu. Finally, the flu has proved deadly, and you'll want to have access to a medical center close to home for the best care.
Currently, most cruise lines have canceled calls to Mexico in late April and early May. Click here for the most recent itinerary adjustments. If you're booked on a Mexico cruise and wish to know your options for canceling the cruise or receiving compensation for missed ports, read our story on this topic.
Should I buy travel insurance?
If you are concerned about getting sick while traveling, you should definitely consider travel insurance, either a regular trip insurance policy or a travel medical plan. Look for policies that cover doctor's visits and medical care outside your home country, trip interruption (if you need to cut short your travels due to illness), emergency medical evacuation and repatriation of remains.
However, if you are currently healthy, note that most insurance policies will not reimburse you should you decide to cancel a trip because you're worried about contracting swine flu. You will only be covered if you purchased a "cancel for any reason" upgrade to your insurance policy.
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor
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Swine Flu Mexico: Cruise Traveler Q&A
May 14, 2009