Interview With Dr. Mike: Swine Flu and Travel

Travel Interviews: How safe is it to travel? Jim Benning asks an influenza expert and the host of a new Travel Channel show for his perspective.

05.01.09 | 5:51 PM ET

As swine flu continues to spread and new questions arise about the dangers it poses, I asked Mike Leahy, the host of a new Travel Channel series premiering in June called “Bite me With Dr. Mike,” about its impact on travel. Dr. Mike is a doctor of virology by trade and a travel junkie by nature. At Oxford University, he focused his research on how influenza replicates. I caught up with him via email.

World Hum: Scientists are still trying to determine just how dangerous swine flu is. What’s your take on it right now?

Dr. Mike: Influenza virus is a very unpredictable virus because it mutates so readily and because it has emerged in incredibly dangerous forms in the past. Even the “regular” seasonal form of influenza kills many thousands of people every year, so seasonal influenza is not a trivial illness. That said, “‘regular flu” isn’t as devastating as the 1918 “Spanish” flu strain—the cause of the biggest killer pandemic of all time. So where does swine flu fit in on the scale of “deadliness”? I doubt if the most recent swine flu outbreak will be as lethal as the 1918 flu, but influenza does have the potential to be a very potent killer, and this strain does seem to be pretty nasty. To be honest, it’s just too early too tell right now. Of course, people like to know hard facts and absolutes, but in this case nobody really knows what’s going to happen. Therefore it’s important to be very wary.

What would you advise would-be travelers to do now? Stay home? Avoid certain places?

From a personal perspective I would carry on traveling and enjoying myself. If this really is a potentially pandemic strain it will eventually find you wherever you are. That said, I would advise others to avoid places like certain areas of Mexico where there are reported to be a number of cases. It’s also interesting to note that many sources are advising Europeans not to travel to the States. Basically some very respected influenza virologists I have been speaking to on both sides of the “pond” are aware that a similar strain has been rumbling around in the Southern U.S. for 10 years or so. 

Are some travelers more at risk of contracting the flu than others?

Seasonal flu is generally seen as a particular problem for the old, the very young and the weak, however the notorious 1918 strain seemed to be disproportionately deadly to strong, fit young people of 25 to 40 years of age. As yet there aren’t enough reliable statistics to determine who would be most at risk from this strain.

Would you be hesitant to step onto a plane or train right now?

At present there are relatively few cases, so if I were about to take a flight either to a location for a vacation, or back home following a vacation, I wouldn’t worry, however I would probably have second thoughts about taking other unnecessary flights. It has to be said that aircraft are not particularly healthy places to be. There is a classic study in which one influenza sufferer infected around 30 other passengers on a single flight. Likewise I wouldn’t hang around people who are obviously ill in trains or buses, but at least you can usually move or open the window in a train or bus, unlike in a plane.

What can travelers do to minimize their risk of contracting the flu? Any tips for staying healthy?

The only real advice being given is to practice good hygiene, which makes very good sense. It will help protect you because influenza can be spread by a fecal/oral route, or by snotty hands, etc., as well as by coughs and sneezes. However, the viruses are tiny and can be spread as an aerosol (far smaller than droplets) so masks are more or less useless. Basically whether you are infected or not is largely down to luck, but simple hygiene may help.

Any final thoughts on swine flu and travel?

As we found when filming “Foreign Bodies,” and as I found before that when traveling on my own, local knowledge is a most useful tool. It’s worth keeping an eye on the CDC website, maybe seeing if you can get to BBC World or CNN on TV, but otherwise ask a local what their perspective is. OK, they may not know exactly what’s going on, but they may give some good pointers. Otherwise it’s simply a case of waiting to see what happens.

Thanks very much.

7 Comments for Interview With Dr. Mike: Swine Flu and Travel

Ed Thomas 05.04.09 | 1:21 AM ET

Dr Mike rocks - nice to get a ‘down to earth’ opinion from someone who actually knows his stuff. Very refreshing. Thanks

best tourist destination 05.05.09 | 2:40 AM ET

taking vitamins or practicing proper hygiene is the best way to prevent virus infection. Or keeping away from the areas which we know that this sickness is spreading. anyways thanks for the tips!!

brian 05.05.09 | 7:59 PM ET

A 22-month-old boy has died in Houston from swine flu as the outbreak continues to expand in the U.S. and abroad, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports today. This is not the first time swine strains of influenza have claimed lives in the U.S., but previous cases appear to have occurred primarily in people exposed to sick pigs. 

The total number of confirmed human cases of the new swine flu strain in the U.S. has now reached 91, according to the CDC Web site: 51 in New York City, 14 in California, one in Arizona, one in Indiana, two in Kansas, two in Massachusetts, two in Michigan, one in Nevada, one in Ohio, and 16 in Texas. The Texas tally includes three teenagers from Guadalupe County and two small children and a 24-year-old in Dallas County, according to Emily Palmer of the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The child who died was from Mexico City, according to a statement by the state health services department. On April 4, the boy and his parents took a flight from Mexico City to Matamoros, Mexico, to see family members in Brownsville, Tex., which is just north of the border. After developing flu-like symptoms four days later, the boy was admitted to a Brownsville hospital and later transferred to one in the Houston area, the statement says. Health officials do not think his infection was contagious the day he took the commercial flight, according to the statement.

Deaths from swine flu, although rare, are not new to the U.S. In 1988, a 32-year-old pregnant woman died of pneumonia caused by the H1N1 swine flu virus. Four days before falling ill, the woman had attended a swine show displaying several pigs with flu-like symptoms at a county fair, according to the CDC. In 1976, the death of a soldier during a swine flu outbreak at Fort Dix, N.J., touched off an infamous panic.

State and federal health officials have identified several non-fatal cases of swine flu over the past several years. Last fall, researchers from Wisconsin published a case report in Emerging Infectious Diseases describing a 17-year-old boy who in 2005 developed mild flu symptoms after helping a family member butcher pigs. Subsequent lab tests revealed he had been infected with swine flu. And a 2002 study indicates that such infections may be common among farm workers.

Historically, the CDC has received about one human swine flu report every one or two years, but that number has recently increased; between December 2005 and February of this year, the agency received 12 reports of human swine flu.

John 05.06.09 | 1:06 AM ET

Interesting point Dr Mike raises about travel on aircraft with recirculated air. Thirty passengers infected with flu in one study is! Is the risk on long haul greater than short haul as the ‘jet lag’ would depress the immune system?

Bruce 05.07.09 | 6:29 PM ET

Great interview! The recirculated air in planes is a major concern people have right now, and I’m glad that he took the time to explain that, and how to protect ourselves from the virus spreading to us.  He was very thorough, and so humble at the same time. 

The thing people keep talking about is air travel, but what about the cruisers?  Cruise lines all over have redirected their sights to tropical islands like Nassau, Paradise Island, and other locations in the Caribbean and the Bahamas, which I see as (don’t kill me) almost an advantage! I guess some people are seeing the upside of this situation, and really faring well from it! I planned on going to Mexico this summer, but after a little research, I found myself gravitating towards the Bahamas! Check out this site, tons of great info about the islands:

And of course, it’s one of the few locations in the West that hasn’t been hit with the H1N1, swine flu, whatever you want to call it.  It’s also so close to home that travelers can feel safe and secure should anything actually happen.  Just putting in my two cents! Sorry for rambling, but travelers, do not be afraid! Just set your sights elsewhere! Bahamas, baby.  :)

Susan White 05.10.09 | 2:25 PM ET

Thanks for the sense of balance with which this story was written. There are/were a lot of viewpoints to balance.

Vegas-Elvis 05.14.09 | 12:53 AM ET

This was a very nice summary of the situation.  Most of the info is pretty much what I already believed, but it’s good to hear from an expert.  I have been wondering what the big deal is with swine flu vs. regular flu that kills so many people every year.

I wrote a very short entry on swine flu in Las Vegas on my <a >Vegas blog</a>.  I’m going to update that post and link to this article when I update the blog next.

Thanks for a good reasonable article with a sane expert opinion.

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