WASHINGTON – Travelers are thinking twice about visiting countries that have been hit hard by the deadly avian influenza,leaving the tourism industry worried about a potential devastating profit loss.
Past communicable disease outbreaks,in such countries as India and China,have cost the governments billions of dollars in tourism revenue.
Since 2003,the H5N1 strain of avian influenza,commonly called bird flu,has killed 109 people in nine countries,with the most deaths among people who regularly handled poultry in Vietnam,Indonesia,China and Thailand. Millions of birds have died or have been slaughtered to prevent an outbreak.
“If – and I stress the word if – there were an outbreak,there would be a reaction. There always is,” said Heather Dolstra,vice president of Democracy Travel here. “Areas could be virtually shut down.”
Clients recently canceled a river cruise to the Black Sea,citing the bird flu as their reason,Dolstra said. And many university study abroad programs have heard concerns from students,who might be living overseas for months at a time.
If the disease spreads and travel warnings are issued,universities would suspend programs in the affected countries and encourage students to leave as soon as possible,said Bruce Hanna,director of communication for the University of California's Education Abroad Program. But conditions haven't reached that stage.
The spread of the disease has been quite minimal compared to the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak in Asia and Canada and the 1994 plague outbreak in India,which cost the country about $4 billion in tourism revenue.
“I would never suggest that people not be worried,because when you travel,worry is just one of the things you pack along with you,” Dolstra said. “But it's not appropriate for people to be in a panic mode in this stage.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regularly updates its Web site with bird flu information for overseas travelers. It does not warn against travel to countries affected by bird flu,partly because it is mainly a risk for people who regularly handle poultry.
In Vietnam,the government has aggressively worked to vaccinate birds and curtail the virus' spread by banning livestock sales in open markets. Since November,there have been no new cases and – unlike when SARS broke out – travel to Vietnam has increased,said Cuong The Nguyen,Embassy of Vietnam spokesman.
But the world isn't yet safe from a potential bird flu pandemic.
The disease has not mutated into a form that spreads easily among humans,but officials from the World Health Organization say it's a question of when,not if,a pandemic strikes.
On Wednesday,a panel of tourism officials discussed preparations for a potential pandemic at a global tourism summit. The panelists included Greece's minister of health,the secretary general for the United Nations' World Tourism Organization and travel and hotel executives.
Two of three conditions for a global pandemic have been met,said Max Hardiman,coordinator of International Health Regulations for WHO and a panelist. First,the virus,to which there is little to no human immunity,has emerged. Second,it has infected humans and caused illness.
But it has not spread easily among people. Scientists and health officials are debating whether that is likely to occur.
About three pandemics occur every century,and the world is “long overdue” for the next one,Hardiman said.
“I am not in a position to predict exactly,and neither is the WHO,” he said. “But the risk is now much higher than it has been in a long time.”
Hardiman said it is a country's best interest to inform the public about its avian flu situation. In 2001,India had a second plague outbreak,but there wasn't a “world panic” because the government kept people up to date,he said.
Dolstra said governments have learned from past outbreaks and are much more efficient at containing them.
“It is way too early to predict where this one will go,” she said. “There is an awareness of it,but there's no need to pull back from travel.”