Grounding planes won't stop swine flu from spreading

     At a recent meeting in Washington, a panel of experts from the government, academia and the airlines industry, has determined that attempting to ground planes won't stop pandemics like swine flu from spreading. One of the major conclusions from the two-day meeting was that restricting air travel during a pandemic, such as the current swine flu strain of influenza that is circulating globally, is not likely to have much of an effect. This falls in line with recommendations that the World Health Organization made earlier this year when it declared the new swine flu strain of influenza - H1N1- to be a bona fide pandemic. The WHO advised in June that it was safe to travel - including on airplanes. This advice followed weeks of diminished travel to and from Mexico, where the new strain of H1N1 first emerged. During April, some 2,000 flights a day to Mexico were cancelled - partly because certain countries restricted travel and partly because so many people cancelled their travel plans. Despite the lower-than-normal travel, pandemic influenza continued to spread around the world, and that is not surprising to scientists like Ben Cooper of the Health Protection Agency in the UK, one of several panelists at the Washington meeting who said travel restrictions are not likely to work. "Even a little bit of air travel goes a long way in spreading diseases like influenza," Cooper said. "So, any achievable reductions in flying are not likely to make much of a difference," he added. At the symposium, organized by the National Research Council's Transportation Research Board, Cooper showed data that modeled the effect of travel restrictions on the spread of a pandemic. Even in the best-case scenario, in which major cities managed to reduce air travel by 99.9 percent after the very first case emerged, Cooper's models showed that a pandemic would merely be postponed by several weeks - arriving later to those cities but establishing outbreaks eventually. "It delays things a bit, but even such an extreme intervention is not effective," Cooper said. In reality, there would likely be thousands of cases before any stringent travel restrictions could be put in place, and under a more realistic scenario, restricting travel makes very little difference at all. Part of the problem is that when people are sick, they fly anyway, despite a consensus among the experts on the panel that people with suspected cases of influenza should not fly. When they do, they risk exposing other passengers - especially those people sitting immediately next to them.

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