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April 30, 2009

Fighting Swine Flu with Foot-in-Mouth

by Barbara S. Peterson

To hear the airlines tell it, it isn't swine flu we should be worried about, it's the foot-in-mouth disease that appears to have been contracted by Vice President Joe Biden. 

Many of you may have heard the Veep's response to a question from Matt Lauer on the Today show on what the public should do to protect itself against the deadly flu: "I would tell members of my family--and I have--I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. It's not that it's going to Mexico; it's you're in a confined aircraft where one person sneezes and it goes all the way through the aircraft," he said.

The airlines quickly shot back: "Vice President Biden's comment that people should avoid air travel in response to the [swine] flu outbreak was extremely disappointing,"  said James C. May, head of the Air Transport Association of America. "The airlines have been working daily with government agencies, none of whom suggest people avoid air travel, unless they are not feeling well. The fact is that the air on board a commercial aircraft is cleaner than that in most public buildings."

Individual airlines are also taking steps to reassure consumers, and many carriers, including Delta and Continental, said they would waive fees for canceling flights to Mexico. Call your carrier if you're concerned, but don't expect to get much sympathy if you are having second thoughts about flying to Minneapolis or Moscow--and want to duck a change fee.  American Airlines, for one, points out that it carries around 250,000 passengers a day and has yet to record a single case of any of them having swine flu.

And in shades of the SARS outbreak of 2003, when fearful travelers stayed home in droves, some international airlines are setting up sensors at key airports that measure the body temperature of passengers arriving from Mexico, the U.S., and Canada, where cases of the flu have been reported.

Despite President Obama's urging the public not to "panic" at last night's news conference, he may have unwittingly stoked the views expressed by Biden by warning about confined spaces. And it appears this is rapidly becoming a full-blown media-fed crisis, complete with video images of tourists in Mexico sporting surgical masks.

Readers: Are you worked up enough to cancel or postpone travel plans?  Are you nervous about getting on a plane?

Further reading:
The Centers for Disease Control's page on Swine Flu and Travel
Swine Flu: The Lessons from Sars (BusinessWeek)

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