Traveler Editor: SARS Travel Fears Unfounded

Heather Morgan
for National Geographic News
June 2, 2003

SARS has been more devastating to the airline industry than 9/11 and the war in Iraq combined, according to the International Air Transport Association. The airline industry expects to lose U.S. $10 billion this year alone. Though the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, has lifted the ban on travel to Toronto and Hong Kong—two of the world's most notoriously SARS-stricken areas—many travelers are still avoiding both cities for fear of contracting the virus. These fears, says Traveler Editor in Chief Keith Bellows, are unfounded, perpetuated by sensational news reports. Here's why.

How great of a threat is SARS to travelers?

SARS is a serious virus. But right now many people are more fearful than they should be, based on the facts. China, for example, has had 5,328 cases of SARS, according to the WHO. It's clearly a big issue there. But when you look at Canada, which is taking a lot of heat right now, you'll discover that there have only been 188 cases. The U.S. has had 66 cases. So when you put that into perspective, SARS is not that prevalent in the U.S. or Canada. Another fear that people seem to have is that they'll catch SARS by riding on a plane with someone who is infected. But that rarely happens. Only 16 people have contracted SARS on a plane and that was before people were being screened in airports.

Is SARS typically deadly?

No. Of the 8,360 cases worldwide, only 764 have resulted in death. I would love to see a statistic on the types of people who have died from SARS. I would guess that they were very susceptible to this, probably either elderly or in poor health already. When there's a flu epidemic, most people who are healthy get sick but live. It's typically the older people, or people who were already sick that die. In fact about 36,000 people die from flu-related problems each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control. So the flu—an illness that most people don't think of as serious—has killed many more people than SARS has.

Are there places that travelers should avoid right now?

Clearly the situation is not under control in Beijing and parts of rural China. The reports coming out of Beijing were certainly suspect in the beginning, and I'm not so sure that we really know what's happening there. Other than that, go where you're comfortable going. If you look at the statistics, there have been cases throughout the world. You could go overboard and avoid traveling anywhere because of SARS. But instead you should put this all into perspective and keep traveling.

If you have SARS-related questions about any destination, consult the WHO's or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's Web site. Go online and look at the newspaper of the city you're traveling to. See how the locals are reacting to SARS and make your decision accordingly. If people in the pictures are wearing gas masks then you probably shouldn't go to that city or province.

Have many travelers contracted SARS?

No. The media has really gone overboard. If you read some major newspapers last week, you'd think that there was this incredible explosion of SARS cases in Canada. And that's just not the case. The WHO did not put a travel ban back on Toronto. Nor did the CDC. There's just this constant drumbeat in the media that would have you thinking that Toronto's closed down and nobody can get in. But in fact Toronto officials are doing everything they can to reassure people that the city is safe for visitors.

What are airlines doing to help prevent people infected with SARS from boarding planes?

In certain areas like Beijing every passenger's temperature is taken before they board or exit a plane. And this is going to be a bit of a problem because not only do you have to undergo a security check, you also have to undergo a health check. Meaning you'll need to get to the airport even earlier than before. If you've got SARS you typically have a high fever, a cough, and you're fatigued and short of breath. But these symptoms could suggest a number of different illnesses. So again, you have to put this all into perspective.

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