The World Health Organization (WHO) warned this weekend that an outbreak of swine flu, which has killed over 70 people in Mexico, could become a pandemic.
Besides alarming the international community the threat is a major concern for the travel and tourism sector.
Already there are suspected cases in New Zealand, France and Israel as well as in Mexico, where the virus began, and neighbouring USA.
In a statement yesterday the World Heath Organization (WHO) said it is coordinating the global response to human cases of the virus – swine influenza A (H1N1) – and monitoring the corresponding threat of an influenza pandemic. [Click here for the full WHO statement].
Speaking after a meeting of the Emergency Committee on Saturday, WHO Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan said: “The Committee agreed that the current situation constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.
Media images of Mexican citizens wearing face masks bring back uncomfortable reminders of the 2003 SARS crisis
“Concerning public health measures, in line with the [International Health] Regulations the Director-General is recommending, on the advice of the Committee, that all countries intensify surveillance for unusual outbreaks of influenza-like illness and severe pneumonia,” she said.
H1N1 is the same strain that causes seasonal flu outbreaks in humans, but the new strain contains genetic material from versions of flu which usually affect pigs and birds.
In the US, about 20 people are reported to have been infected, though none is seriously ill. US President Barack Obama has ordered a “very active, aggressive, and co-ordinated response”, White House Homeland Security Advisor John Brennan said.
According to the BBC and other mainstream media, several countries in Asia and Latin America have begun screening airport passengers for symptoms [We’ll bring you news in coming days of how airports are responding to the threat].
Ten New Zealand students who were among a group which travelled to Mexico have tested positive for influenza A – making it “likely” that they are infected with swine flu, according to Health Minister Tony Ryall
The BBC reported that in France there are unconfirmed suspicions that two individuals who had just returned from Mexico may be carrying the virus. Spain’s health ministry also said that three people who had returned from Mexico with flu symptoms were in isolation. Israel was reported to have isolated a man with flu-like symptons after returning from Mexico
SARS REPEAT WOULD BE A DISASTER FOR TOURISM
The news – and images flashed all around the world of Mexican citizens wearing face masks – spell grim news for the tourism industry in Mexico, and potentially further afield.
Global tourism – and travel retail – suffered dreadfully in 2003 from the impact of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which devastated travel, particularly in Asia.
16 March 2003 and The Moodie Report notes the outbreak of a mystery virus – “potentially terrible news for the travel industry, especially in Asia, which was already seeing a downturn as war with Iraq nears”
On 16 March 2003 The Moodie Report noted: “Global health authorities are struggling to contain a mystery virus, apparently spread by air travel, which has affected more than 150 people across several countries, killing at least nine.”
It was the beginning of a long-running story that would dominate our headlines for months. In April 2003, for example, Hong Kong tourist arrivals slumped -64.8% year-on-year due to SARS. A month later, Tokyo Narita’s passenger numbers for May fell by -56% and Singapore tourist arrivals by -72% as the crisis deepened.
On Thursday 19 July, 100 days after the WHO first alerted the world to the SARS threat, the virus was officially declared “under control”.
The travel retail industry, already in a state of siege from the global financial crisis, will be praying there is no repeat of that 100-day disaster, or any indeed of one lasting for any period at all.