Swine flu travel responses seen undermining message

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The global public health campaign to convey a realistic view of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic is being undermined by a babble of contradictory reactions at international airports, experts said on Friday.

Air travelers are confronted by a host of inconsistent H1N1 messages and approaches as they travel between countries. Authorities at some airports quarantine suspected flu cases, while others dispense with posting even the most basic health information for passengers.

Some high-profile measures, like subjecting air passengers to thermal screening, also seem to be driven more by politics than medical science and could divert essential funding and manpower from more effective actions, they said.

“This does cause confusion in the mind of the public, because they’re getting different messages from all over,” said Dr Tony Evans, medical chief at the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization.

“It undermines the public health message. It causes confusion and then the really good stuff, the important stuff, is undermined,” he told a meeting on airlines, airports and disease transmission sponsored by the independent U.S. National Research Council.

Public health officials, who expect to begin distributing a swine flu vaccine soon, have recommended hand-washing to prevent the spread of infection and asked people not to travel or report to work if they feel sick.

Aviation’s role in spreading infectious diseases has been of growing concern for public health officials. H1N1 has continued to spread globally since it emerged in March in North America.

Air travel can accelerate the spread of infectious disease around the globe. But health officials say travel restrictions are of little or no use.

Research suggests that passenger screening does not significantly delay the spread of disease, though Evans said it might dissuade some sick people from trying to board flights.

Evans said public authorities in Mexico found that thermal screening machines offered very little value.

“But they felt obliged to put it into place through public pressure. The public, they felt, needed to be reassured that something was being done,” he said.

Dr Rose Ong, who heads the corporate medical department at Cathay Pacific Airways in Hong Kong, told the meeting that H1N1 itself has confused the situation by prompting dire public health warnings and then proving unexpectedly mild.

“A lot of us are scratching our heads,” she said. “I don’t think you can discount the fear factor. It counts for so much in how governments react and how individuals react.”

Ong said companies can be swept up by the public reaction to swine flu, noting that banks and transportation systems in Asia began distributing surgical masks earlier this year even though the actual danger was low.

“We really felt we had to do something similar even though we did not medically support the use of masks,” she said.

Editing by Maggie Fox and Chris Wilson