Dr. Toovey has been active in influenza research for many years, authoring over 110 peer-reviewed publications and contributing to several textbooks. He is an associate editor of the journal Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease. His other research interests include malaria, rabies, tuberculosis and neurological aspects of infectious diseases.
January 28, 2014 – Our world grows more integrated and interdependent every year. We trade products, services and ideas more widely than ever, crossing cultural, geographic and political boundaries. But we also trade diseases.
Globalization is not exactly a new phenomenon, but it’s accelerated in recent decades and is a major factor in the spread of infectious diseases.
Starting small, going global
As the microorganisms that cause infectious disease spread from person to person, they become unwanted baggage in local, regional and international travel. A small outbreak in a neighborhood of New York City or a rural district of Africa can quickly spread beyond borders when an infected person boards a plane to another continent.
We often associate this sort of global transmission with exotic diseases, such as SARS and Ebola. SARS originated in southern China in 2002, and quickly spread to nearly 30 countries, passing through hotels, housing complexes and air travel, eventually killing over 750 people.
While emerging and difficult-to-treat disease are a major concern, we shouldn’t forget that the spread of more familiar infectious diseases, such as the flu, are also driven by globalization.
The flu is no exception
The flu is spread by respiratory droplets expelled into the environment by an infected person talking, coughing and sneezing. This means flu spreads quite easily from person to person, especially in areas of close contact, such as air travel, trains and hotels. In these kinds of contained spaces, exposure is almost unavoidable – we all have to breathe!
Flu is especially worrisome when a novel strain is spreading, as very few people will have pre-existing immunity, which can result in a high rate of spread and potentially exponential growth in infections.
How to fight disease in a global world
We can’t switch globalization off. It just isn’t feasible to close down our borders, cut off trade and block travel. Recent international health regulations recognize this challenge and call for infectious disease management strategies that don’t cause undue interruption to global commerce and travel.
As an individual traveler, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and others from disease. First and foremost, make sure you are up-to-date on all recommended vaccines, including your annual flu vaccine. If you’re traveling to another country, you should consider visiting a travel medicine physician to discuss recommendations specific to your destination.
Study up on your flu etiquette, too. Wash your hands frequently, don’t touch your eyes, nose and mouth, try to stay away from coughing and sneezing people – basically all of the things your mother told you to do.