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Flu Season Is all Year for Travelers - Donít Let it Get You Down

By: Fran Lessans, R.N., M.S., President of Passport Health

The flu vaccine is safe and effective for anyone who wants to reduce his or her chance of being infected with influenza. Countries with tropical climates have influenza activity year round, and biannual epidemics have been reported. In temperate climates, influenza typically occurs in winter months, but travelers may be exposed in the summer. Outbreaks of influenza on cruise ships and among land-based tours suggest that tourists traveling in large groups, which include international travelers, may be at an increased risk.

Each year the virus that causes influenza changes. The virus is tracked from east to west and manufacturing depends on the strains found. Influenza is a highly contagious respiratory viral illness. Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, fatigue, muscle aches, headaches, runny nose, and watery eyes. Children may also experience vomiting and diarrhea.

The incubation period for influenza is 1 to 4 days. A person with influenza can be contagious 1 day before symptoms appear and for 3 to 7 days after the onset of symptoms. Influenza viruses are spread by droplets produced by an infected person who is coughing or sneezing.

Travelers are at increased risk for exposure to influenza. The risk depends on the time of year, destination, and type of travel. In the tropics, influenza can occur throughout the year. However, in temperate climate zones of both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, travelers can be exposed to influenza during their respective summer months, especially when traveling in large, organized tourist groups consisting of persons from areas of the world where influenza viruses are circulating.

The best protection against the flu is a vaccination. The vaccine is 70% to 90% effective in preventing influenza among healthy adults if it is administered at least 2 weeks before exposure and if there is a good match between the vaccine and the influenza strain causing illness.

If you develop symptoms of respiratory illness, such as cough, sore throat, or fever, while you are traveling, you should contact your tour director, hotel staff, guide, or physician. As with any illness, if you feel that you are having difficulty breathing, you should consult a physician and seek immediate medical attention. Travel personnel or hotel staff are likely to have information of local medical facilities should you require them.

You should limit your exposure to others if you have symptoms such as cough, sore throat, or fever. This could mean avoiding activities or places (including those on cruise ships) where people are crowded together indoors, such as restaurants, bars, movie theaters, or game rooms.

The travel industry is working closely with public health authorities to limit transmission among tourists. Some cruise lines have started surveillance for respiratory illness among both passengers and crew members. Also, some cruise lines vaccinate their crew members against influenza. The primary purpose of vaccinating crew members is to protect passengers by decreasing the possibility of influenza transmission from crew members to passengers who may not be vaccinated, yet are at increased risk for severe illness or death following influenza infection (older persons and those with chronic medical conditions).

You may also want to protect yourself against pneumonia. Pneumococcal vaccination is recommended for most of the same groups as influenza vaccine, whether or not you are planning to travel. The protection given by the vaccine starts about 14 days after vaccination. The influenza and pneumonia vaccine are compatible and may be given together.

Passport Health has both vaccines available. Visit Passport Health for a listing of its locations.