Could holiday travel increase swine flu cases?

Swine flu has become a defining illness of 2009, and it may well play a role this Thanksgiving. Federal health officials, who've seen a recent decline nationally in the illness, worry that swine flu could increase over the holiday.

"With frequent travel (and) lots of people coming together, we might see an increase" in swine flu," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, the director of immunization and respiratory diseases for the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

She added, "Special holiday get-togethers -- and traveling itself -- bring people close together but also provide an ideal way for illness to spread."

Many will be passing through crowded airports heading to crowded airplanes, where they'll brush against people and touch the same surfaces as others, some who may have swine flu.

So what can you do to make this a happy and healthy holiday?

"The first step is to travel well," Schuchat said. "That means travel only when your well."

People with flu-like symptoms should consider avoiding travel and parties, health officials say. These symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, and fatigue. Some people may also have vomiting and diarrhea. People may be infected with the flu and have respiratory symptoms without a fever, they said.

Some people have been able to get vaccinated against the swine flu, also called H1N1, but supplies remain limited in some places.

Still, people can take steps to stay healthy, said Dr. David Propp, a staff physician at the Emory Clinic in Atlanta.

Propp recommended that people wash their hands often. If soap and water are not available, they can use hand sanitizer. Packing some hand sanitizer for a trip is a good idea, he said.

People should also cough or sneeze into their sleeves rather than their hands, if a tissue is not available.

In general, it's a good idea to keep your hands away from your face and eyes, as touching them can transmit the virus, he said.

Fever is a generally good indicator as to whether you should avoid contact with people, he said.

"If you have a fever, you wouldn't want to be around others, but if it's just a scratchy throat, you might not want to get close to anyone," Propp said.

Many of the same guidelines apply to air travel, as well, said Christopher White, a spokesman for AirTran Airways.

Wearing a mask on a plane has not been shown to be effective in warding off swine flu, he said.

Airlines have different policies on whether they will waive fees to passengers who cancel because of swine flu.

AirTran will waive any cancellation or change fees for people who can show a doctor's note saying they had swine flu, White said.

"Flu shouldn't ruin the holidays," Schuchat of the CDC said. "By practicing a little prevention, people can enjoy their holidays and stay well at the same time."

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