Is This Bugging You? UPDATED

This flu thing has been bugging me (sorry about the pun). As a frequent traveler for over 20 years, I am used to traveling with strangers on flights and using hotel rooms and rental cars after them. However, this year the flu numbers are too telling to ignore.

The Orlando Sentinel recently ran an article about two women who died from the flu. Both were fairly young women – ages 46 and 53 – who never gave a thought to their risk anymore than you or I would. Nevertheless, they became fatal victims of this relentless virus.

Indeed, there have been nearly 100 confirmed flu deaths in Florida alone. Numbers like this are much too high to ignore.

To make it worse, we can’t control the behavior of others. I admit I was shocked and embarrassed to see how many women on a recent cruise failed to wash their hands after using the restroom. This is inexcusable on a ship with 2,400 passengers and almost that many crew members.

What can be done to protect travelers?

All travel vendors need to step up and do their part. Cruiselines have been particularly good about this, no doubt in part because of the frequent reported Norovirus outbreaks. Whatever the reasons, good hygiene is the norm on ships with very strong encouragement that passengers practice it as well.

Hotels vary on their commitment to hygiene but I was delighted with Bill Marriott’s recent blog about this problem. We can only hope that other hoteliers follow Marriott’s lead.

The airlines have not been so robust dealing with this. I have yet to see any comment from any airline addressing this serious health concern. 

Fact is, the airlines have very tight turnaround schedules with no time to completely disinfect a plane. While the cleaning crews no doubt do a decent job given their time constraints, there is no suitable substitute for anything less than excellent hygiene with so much at risk for passengers.

UPDATE:  Only hours after this blog was posted, MSNBC posted this article warning travelers that airline workers may actually spread the flu faster than the risks from other passengers.  This warning comes from the Center for Disease Control.  No comment yet from the airline industry.

As for restaurants, anyone involved in food preparation should be wearing gloves. Unfortunately, there is no way to know if this is done without examining kitchens. Otherwise, you can ask and hope they answer honestly.

What’s can travelers do for protection?

I am not a fan of wearing masks or gloves – good luck getting by TSA with a mask on – but if this flu outbreak reaches further deadlier heights, they may be necessary.

What you can do is cover your face if you cough or sneeze and wash your hands very frequently. I know this sounds a little Lady Macbeth-ish but there is no substitute for keeping your hands as clean as possible. Think about it, you touch your face and everything else hundreds of times each day.

Also, don’t walk around without slippers or socks on your feet. This is especially true for heavily traveled spots like hotel rooms.

If you are feeling ill, stay home.  After all, you wouldn't want anyone who is sick flying in the seat next to you, much less walking around a mall or sitting at the next desk at work. If you are ill, avoiding contact with other people is critical to minimizing the spread of this disease.

Another thing: Consider getting a flu shot. Of course, check with your doctor first but for most people, they should be safe. USA Today made it easy for fliers to get shots by posting a schedule of airports and times the shots are available.

However, to complicate things this year, there is the normal flu influenza as well as the much publicized and more deadly H1N1 strain, often called swine flu.  As of this writing, the H1N1 vaccine is not available but will be soon.

Nevertheless, the Center for Disease Control recommends both injections for those who are at high risk.  For more information, check out the CDC here for the normal flu and here for the H1N1.

What else to do? Encourage others to do the same. It is much safer for all of us if everyone does their part.

Think this is not a concern because you won’t get the flu? I certainly hope it doesn’t happen to you, your family, or your friends but consider this sobering thought…

Remember the nearly one hundred people above who died from this bug? They never thought they would get it either. Look where they are today, leaving behind hundreds of grieving families and friends. And this is only in Florida. Do the math for the rest of the country, much less the world.

Please take care and be safe.

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