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Will Stopping Travel Stop the Flu?

As part of its effort to slow the spread of swine flu, the U.S. government plans to issue an advisory later today for its citizens to avoid all nonessential travel to Mexico. At a press conference today, Richard Besser, acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the government decided to issue the advisory “out of an abundance of caution.”

Besser said CDC has now confirmed 40 cases of swine flu in five states, in persons ranging in age from 7 to 54 years old. This doubles the figure since Saturday, and the new cases were all students from the same New York City school who recently visited Mexico. CDC has confirmed 26 cases in Mexico, which now has 1600 suspected cases. “Clearly, this is a small fraction of what they’re seeing,” he said. Mexico also appears to have many severe cases, including nearly 20 confirmed deaths. Only one person in the United States has required hospitalization, and all have recovered.

Earlier in the day, the health commissioner of the European Union, Androulla Vassiliou, urged Europeans to put off nonessential travel to both Mexico and the United States. Besser said he thought it was “premature” to put travel restrictions on people coming to the United States, which has yet to see severe disease.

On Sunday, Hong Kong announced that it not only discouraged travel to Mexico but also would hospitalize anyone who arrived in the country with a respiratory disease. In 2003, an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome that scared the world first emerged in Hong Kong.

Julio Frenk, the former secretary of health in Mexico who now heads Harvard University’s School of Public Health, told Science that “blanket banning of travel never works.” Frenk, who was in Mexico City when he spoke with ScienceInsider, praised the Mexican government for taking prudent steps, such as closing schools for 12 days and discouraging people from gathering in public. The World Health Organization should coordinate the international response, he said, and it has yet to recommend any travel restrictions. “What needs to happen is to give good information to people to prevent spread and if there are symptoms, make sure they know what to do.”

To that end, CDC issued a new “guidance” today to reduce exposure to flu and provide guidance on what do if you become infected.

Follow our full coverage on the swine flu outbreak here.