Swine flu advice for holidaymakers

21 July 2009

As the number of swine flu cases and deaths continue to grow across the world, people heading off on holiday or a work trip abroad are urged to take extra care to protect their health.

The illness has claimed more than 700 victims around the world since the outbreak began four months ago, according to the World Health Organization, and experts predict it will soon become the biggest flu pandemic ever known.

However, while the number of cases rises on a daily basis, the vast majority of people affected only suffer mild symptoms. Having said that, with the supply of medical resources varying from country to country, and pregnant women, children under five and people aged 65-plus all deemed at high-risk, it may well impact your travel plans.
The two main symptoms of swine flu are a sudden fever, where your body temperature is 38C/100.4F or more, and a sudden cough.

However, other symptoms include:

* Headache
* Tiredness
* Chills
* Aching muscles
* Limb or joint pain
* Diarrhoea or stomach upset
* Sore throat
* Runny nose
* Sneezing
* Loss of appetite

Source:  NHS Direct

Although the medical authorities are at great pains to point out that the vast majority of people will recover from swine flu within a week without any additional complications, even without being given antiviral medication, this could still cause problems if you are due to take your summer break at the same time as falling ill.

Anyone concerned that they or a family member might have swine flu should, initially, use the NHS Direct swine flu symptom checker.

If you are still concerned then you are advised to stay at home and call your GP. Your doctor may give you a voucher reference number entitling you to antiviral medication, which the NHS advises to you pass onto a healthy friend or relative to pick up on your behalf.

Should you travel?

Although the government has not advised people to cancel trips abroad in light of swine flu, it does recommend that anyone suffering from a respiratory illness should delay travel. You might also want to consider your options if you fall into the ‘at-risk’ group – this includes pregnant women. For the full list, click here

You can also check the website of the National Travel Heath Network and Centre for details on swine flu cases within different countries. The NHS warns people to consider what their risk is of getting swine flu while abroad and to research the level of healthcare available should they fall ill.

If you do decide to travel, then remember to pack plenty of waterless alcohol-based hand gels, and don’t skimp on travel insurance (see below).

While a lot of the advice from the NHS is commonsense – for example, it recommends you avoid contact with people you know to be suffering from swine flu – it also suggests people should err on the side of caution while abroad. This includes avoiding crowds and mass gatherings and preventing the spread of germs by not touching your nose, mouth or eyes.

If you are travelling with children, this advice is worth sticking to, especially as the those under five are considered to belong to the high-risk group.

Other general advice (that is worth following here and abroad) is to properly wash your hands regularly with soap and water, covering your nose with tissues when you sneeze, and wear a properly fitting face mask in certain situations, such as in a doctor’s surgery.

If you develop any of the symptoms of swine flu within seven days of returning from your trip, then you should follow the advice about getting medical help outlined above.

Travel insurance

If you ditch your holiday plans, whether you get your money back or not will depend on the type of insurance you can as well as your reasons for cancelling.

If the perceived fear of catching swine flu is your main reason for cancelling, then you may find yourself out of luck, and your travel insurer might not be willing to regard this as a sufficient reason.

However, if you or your family are diagnosed with swine flu before you are due to travel then your travel insurance should pay out for holiday cancellation. While you would normally be expected to get a sick note to prove you were not fit to travel, insurers are likely to waive this requirement in light of the circumstances, according to the Association of British Insurers (ABI).

Now that the National Pandemic Flu Service has gone live, the travel insurance industry has confirmed that it will accept the unique ID number (together with the label from the anti-flu drugs prescribed) as a medical certification of swine flu diagnosis.

Nick Starling, director of general insurance and health at the ABI, says: “The National Pandemic Flu Service will only authorise an anti-flu prescription to people who are genuinely displaying symptoms of swine flu. On that basis, travel insurers will accept an individual’s unique ID number generated by the National Flu Service, together with the label on their anti-flu drugs which states their name and date of issue, as proof of diagnosis to validate a travel insurance cancellation claim.”

There have been reports that airlines have been preventing some people from boarding flights if they display any flu-like symptoms; while the airlines may refund you any losses as a result, this is not guaranteed.

However, your travel insurance should compensate you for rearranged flights and cancelled accommodation, as long as you have written confirmation from the airline’s medical assessment team that you were prevented from travelling. 

If you become sick while abroad then again your travel insurance should cover the cost of any medical treatment, as well as rearranged flights and accommodation. This is also true if you are placed in quarantine while overseas, thereby missing your departure date, but only if you have confirmation of the quarantine. 

Nick Starling, director of general insurance and health at the ABI, says: “Travel insurance will usually cover the cost if a holiday is cancelled because someone is too ill to travel. It will also cover the cost of medical treatment abroad and any associated delays caused by getting an illness on holiday.”

However, there are concerns that some travel insurance policies may have exclusions for pandemics and epidemics, so you should check the terms and conditions of your existing insurance policy and even consider buying a new policy that offers full cover.

Comparison website Confused.com says that pandemic exclusions are not present in mainstream policies, but urges travellers to still check and put their minds at rest.

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