Travel: Advice on the plague zone

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WITH the peak tourist season just getting under way, the Indian government is keen to reassure travellers that the outbreak of pneumonic plague in Gujarat and Maharashtra is now under control.

But health experts in this country warn that while the rise in the number of suspected cases is beginning to level out (now given at 6,372, with 55 deaths), it is still too early to give a definitive view. According to Peter Barratt of the Medical Advisory Service for Travellers Abroad (Masta), the situation does seem to be improving, but travellers should take some essential precautions nevertheless, and certain areas should still be avoided altogether.

The official advice from the Foreign Office is not to visit Gujarat State (especially the port of Surat where the epidemic is centred) nor the Beed/Latur/Pahbhani/

Osmanabad areas of south Maharashtra for the time being. Neither Bombay nor Delhi, which has been hit with 892 suspected cases, is considered to present major problems - but if you are travelling in those areas, it is wise to assess the situation locally in case it deteriorates. The resorts around Goa, in south-west Maharashtra, are not currently thought to be at risk, according to Masta.

Pneumonic plague infects the lungs, and is spread by the coughing and spluttering of victims. The best protection is to avoid prolonged exposure to large crowds, especially in the poorer parts of big cities (something that is not exactly easy in India) and steer clear of anyone who appears to be ill. Crowded third-class railway carriages are best avoided in current circumstances. Some Indians have taken to wearing face masks, but medical opinion is divided on whether or not they provide much in the way of effective protection.

Even if travellers do fear they may have been exposed to the plague, there is no need to panic: it is easily and quickly treated. However, there have been some reports of local shortages of the antibiotic treatment for the disease. So it is advisable to carry a back-up supply of 50 250mg tetracycline tablets (these are available on prescription at a GP's discretion).

The tablets should only be taken as a precaution after coming into contact with a known victim. Anyone going down with a fever or coughing up blood should see a local doctor immediately.

Those who have booked package holidays and decide to cancel a visit to India are unlikely to get a refund, unless they are going to an area which the Foreign Office has declared unsafe.

Some tour operators, such as Thomson, have been offering refunds or alternative holidays to those booked to India but the situation changes from week to week. Contact your travel agent or tour operator direct. Some travel insurance policies may cover cancellation on these grounds.

The latest information on the situation in India is available from the Foreign Office Travel Advice Unit by phoning 071-270 4129 (fax 071-270 4228) or on BBC2 Ceefax p564 onwards. Masta has an advice line for travellers (0891 224100 - charged at premium rates). If you leave your address and details of your travel plans, you will be sent the latest advice on health and immunisation by return of first-class post.