Flu flies the friendly skies

JISHOU, HUNAN — It should not come as a big surprise that the swine flu (H1N1 influenza virus) has spread very quickly. A lot of people fly internationally now.

But epidemiologists in Toronto have found convincing correlation between air travel from Mexico during the early stages of the H1N1 outbreak and the number of reported infections in the destination cities. Their findings are summarized in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine

First, here’s their map showing the destinations of air travelers from Mexico during March and April 2008. [Click on the image to see it full-size.] The vast majority of those destinations were in the USA and Canada.

NEJM map

The researchers tabulated the number of reported cases of H1N1 infections. The USA and Canada lead the list.

Table of cases

China has seen relatively few H1N1 cases, since air travel between China and Mexico is not too common, but reported cases have either involved travelers who had been to Mexico and traveled through the USA, or travelers coming directly from the USA.

By comparison, soldiers returning from World War I apparently spread the so-called Spanish flu around the world, leading to a major pandemic in 1918.

In response to the pandemic, China has curtailed same-day issuance of visas within the USA. Visa applicants now have to wait for their visas. In addition, health inspectors check everyone arriving on international flights before they even leave the plane. Anyone who has an abnormal temperature, or who shows signs of respiratory problems (coughing, sneezing, etc.), are sent to a nearby hotel for a one-week quarantine.

Thus, I have postponed returning to the USA not because I am worried about catching the swine flu, but because I’d rather not be denied re-entry into China or be stuck in a hotel alone for a week.

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