The European Union’s Health Commissioner has recommended that Europeans avoid all non-essential travel to the US and Mexico (Canada’s apparently under the radar so far) as a measure to contain the spread of the emerging swine influenza virus. This has been met with some disdain by US officials, who emphasize the small number of cases (so far) in the US, and the much, much larger numbers of people that die in various countries every year from classical human influenza.

It’s hard to say what type of restrictions are appropriate at this point in the outbreak. In general, it’s better to be prudent and excessive (within limits) when dealing with a developing problem. The lack of information about the true scope of the problem, and the delays from transmission to definitive diagnosis of new cases, complicate assessments about whether the problem is truly contained, or containable.

Swine flu was most recently confirmed in Spain, and it has probably reached many different countries. It is also suspected in a group of students in New Zealand that recently visited Mexico.  Considering the massive volume of travel between North America and much of the world, and the wide geographic range of cases in North America, it’s hard to envision keeping this localized.

The fact that this outbreak is going to be difficult to contain, however, should not be taken as an excuse to not try to contain it. Even if this virus spreads to many different countries, good infection control and surveillance measures can help limit the impact of the disease.

Photo: Chichen Itza, one of the major tourist attractions on the Yucutan Peninsula in Mexico (credit M. Anderson)