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Tourism and the flu factor
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Some of the pronouncements coming out of the Geneva headquarters of the World Health Organisation this month have had an apocalyptic ring to them. First there was the ominous warning that the spread of the flu pandemic had become "unstoppable", and now we hear from WHO chief Margaret Chan that the vaccine to combat it has been delayed, perhaps until November, or however long it takes to complete trials and get it right.

That was not what the tourism and travel industry wanted to hear. Market leaders had been quietly hoping for a quick fix that would lessen the flu threat before the peak tourist season arrived. Early mass vaccinations in target countries was one such hope. That would still have left tourism planners having to contend with the worldwide economic slowdown, the country's reputation as a hotbed of political unrest, a strong baht and growing competition.

China is a prime tourist target with an economy recovering faster than anyone thought possible. But even with predictions of 8% growth, affluent Chinese have been cancelling holidays in Thailand because of fears of contracting the A(H1N1) virus. The president of the Thai-Chinese Tourism Alliance Association on Tuesday described this segment of the tourism industry as "totally dead". Airlines are also seeing a downward trend, especially on domestic and long-haul flights. Some blame the risk factor of spending hours in a closed environment surrounded by strangers, any one of whom might be shedding the airborne virus.

Regular flu is only life-threatening to the aged and infirm. This new variant has caused concern because scientists and researchers have linked the H1N1 virus to strains responsible for the 1918 flu pandemic. They say it is stronger, penetrates deeper into the lungs and can cause more damage than normal flu. This, say the scientists, is why it can kill otherwise healthy people. Clearly more research is needed to determine if their findings, published in the journal Nature, have any basis in fact, but such reports do highlight the hazards faced daily by medical professionals.

The delay in producing a safe and effective vaccine is primarily a setback for those in the front line of the fight against flu and we must do all we can to help them. They need immunisation as a matter of urgency but do realise how vital it is for the vaccine to be proven to be effective and safe, no matter how long it takes. This includes our own locally-produced spray vaccine which will go into production next month and then require up to four months of testing, including human trials. Once perfected, top priority should go to healthcare workers throughout the country. Then, apparently, will come the nation's senior administrators and the armed forces. Pregnant women, if safe, children and those with chronic diseases must also join this queue.

Mass vaccination plans for the whole population have been drawn up in the United Kingdom, which fears its infection rate could escalate to 100,000 a day by the end of next month. Similar schemes are planned for Australia and Europe. Making the vaccine available to everyone is costly but it is the surest way to avert panic among a population at risk. It should also help protect against any mutated form of the virus.

Doctors, though, are cautious because they know that vaccines are not without risk. They killed more people than swine flu did in the '76 outbreak in the US.

Most people do not need a vaccination because they are strong enough to develop their own immunity after a brief bout of flu, aided in their recovery by anti-viral drugs. Unlike vaccines, these are available right now.

(Bangkok Post July 18, 2009)

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