Businesses are implementing changes to business travel, according to recent surveys, reflecting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) ongoing recommendation to postpone nonessential travel to Mexico as a precaution against swine influenza A, also known as H1N1.
Sixty percent of 113 corporate travel managers are canceling nonessential travel to Mexico and 45 percent issued companywide warnings, according to an April 29 poll of its members by the Alexandria, Va.-based National Business Travel Association (NBTA).
Meanwhile, preliminary results from a recent survey by global HR consulting firm ORC Worldwide and the first in a series of focused conference calls with its members show more than 60 percent have implemented changes to business travel practices.
That includes banning all nonessential travel, banning all nonessential travel to affected areas, requiring a higher-level approval for travel to various locations, and specific restrictions related to travel to Mexico, according to Tobi D’Andrea, executive vice president of ORC Worldwide.
Another 12 percent to 14 percent, reacting to the economy, had restricted travel prior to the swine flu outbreak.
Providing medical briefings and contact numbers for travelers to obtain medical advice are the most common actions businesses are taking, D’Andrea told SHRM Online. Also, almost half of ORC Worldwide’s respondents have instituted some type of mandatory quarantine period for employees returning from locations where there are confirmed cases of swine flu.
“We are pleased to see the level of responsible attention being paid to this influenza outbreak,” D’Andrea said in an e-mail. “We are also pleased to see the responses being thoughtful and measured and without panic.
“We believe we are seeing the benefit of responsible planning, much of which has carried over from efforts related to the avian flu, but most importantly, planning that has been maintained and proven to be practical and useful in the situation we find ourselves in today.”
As of May 6, 2009, 22 countries officially had reported 1,516 cases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). That includes 822 confirmed cases in Mexico, 165 in Canada and 57 in Spain. There were 403 confirmed cases in the United States as of May 6, 2009, according to the CDC. Mexico reported 29 flu-related deaths; the United States has had one, in Texas.
But Dr. Richard Besser, CDC acting director, called the situation in Mexico “encouraging.”
“It appears that things are leveling off in Mexico. They are reporting less activity in Mexico City,” he said in a May 4 press briefing.
“So far the severity of illness we’re seeing in [the United States] is similar to what we’re seeing in seasonal flu,” and the strain appears milder in the United States than in Mexico, he said. Putting swine flu in context with seasonal flu, he noted that on average there are about 30 million cases of seasonal flu annually and 36,000 flu-related deaths in the United States.
Neither the CDC nor the WHO has indicated that plane, bus or rail travel exposes travelers to any risk of contacting swine flu, the NBTA pointed out in a recent press release, and the WHO has not advised restricting regular travel or closing borders.
The WHO has assessed swine flu pandemic alert at phase 5, which signifies sustained transmission in at least two countries in one region—in this case North America, said the WHO’s Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general, interim for health security and environment, in a May 4 press briefing.
A phase 6 designation would mean a continued threat of the virus to countries outside of one region, and is different from ascertaining the severity of a pandemic, he said. A WHO map showing confirmed cases can be found at http://www.who.int/csr/disease/swineflu/GlobalSubnationalMaster_20090504_0630.jpg.
Business Travel Precautions
Sharp, Sony and Panasonic are among companies that have asked employees not to travel to Mexico.
Nestlé has not imposed travel bans on employees, although travel to and from Mexico and the U.S. has been limited, according to a May 1 statement on the company’s web site. It will, it said, “apply such limitations to any other country where human-to-human transmission of the virus is undeniably established.”
In addition, many European and Asian countries are advising citizens against traveling to Mexico or the U.S. In Japan, health officials are boarding planes from Mexico using portable thermal sensors, while China continues its practice of temperature checks for all passengers entering the country. Reuters reported that DuPont Co. suspended travel to and from Mexico until May 6, 2009.
“Our initial survey data shows that travel managers are doing their due diligence to help their companies make smart travel decisions at this difficult time,” said Kevin Maguire, NBTA president and CEO, in a press release.
That due diligence should include making sure all employees are vaccinated, says Dr. Neal Sikka, assistant professor in emergency medicine at George Washington University. He’s also medical director of GW Lifesavers, a service that offers 24/7 medical care for individual and business travelers.
“We really want to encourage everyone in your business to be vaccinated,” Sikka said. He suggests organizations set up a flu vaccination clinic for fall 2009. He advises organizations to identify and vet medical services available in the locale where the traveling employee will be, and to discourage ill employees from working or traveling.
Travelers should have an emergency medical contact for the locality they will be in, have their physician’s contact information and bring personal medication, he suggested. The U.S. Department of State lists Medical Information for Americans Traveling Abroad.
Travelers also should monitor their health after returning home.
“Just because you get off the plane and you’re home doesn’t mean you’re OK,” Sikka observed.
The CDC advises all travelers to pack a travel health kit that contains basic first aid and medical supplies, check whether their health insurance plan will cover them abroad, and consider purchasing additional insurance that covers medical evacuation in case of illness. It posted guidelines on actions people can take to reduce their risk of infection while in Mexico:
Monitor announcements from Mexico’s Ministry of Health and local government, including information about affected areas, as not all areas are equally affected.
Follow local public health guidelines, including any movement restrictions and prevention recommendations.
Be aware that Mexico is checking all exiting airline passengers for signs of swine flu. Exit screening may cause significant delays at airports.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will provide Travel Health Alert Notices to U.S. travelers entering and exiting Mexico at all airports, seaports and border crossings, and the CDC says it will provide all ill passengers and their contacts arriving from Mexico with Travel Health Alert Notices.
Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Nancy Hatch Woodward is a freelancer for SHRM Online who contributed to this report.