Plague panic grounds India holiday flights

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The Independent Online
FEARS THAT the plague sweeping India could extend to Europe emerged yesterday when nine suspected cases were identifed in Britain and the country's largest tour operator cancelled holidays to the sub-continent.

Thomson announced it was scrapping four tours to India over the next two weeks. Other operators reported customers cancelling holidays and one, Hayes and Jarvis, has cancelled a tour to the north of the subcontinent.

Eight of the nine British suspected cases have been given the all- clear. The one person still under investigation is a 'low possibility' case, the Public Health Laboratory Service said.

The Indian outbreaks of pneumonic and bubonic plague claimed their first two lives in Delhi as the number of suspected cases in the Indian capital doubled yesterday from 63 to 121, despite closure of schools and cinemas.

European Union health ministers met in Brussels to discuss how to stop the disease spreading to Europe.

In India the epidemic appears to be gathering momentum as it spreads from Surat in the west to Calcutta in the east, with 2,400 cases reported in 10 days from seven out of 26 states; 900 cases were reported yesterday alone. There have been no Britons among the reported cases in India so far, although hundreds are travelling in Rajasthan and Bombay, popular tourist destinations, where plague has occurred.

All yesterday's cases in Britain had recently returned from the sub-continent. Some went to their GPs because they were concerned about feverish or flu-like symptoms characteristic of the initial stages of pneumonic plague, but at least one was referred after a medical check at an airport. Pneumonic plague, a highly contagious variant of the Black Death or bubonic plague, begins in the lungs and can spread by coughing or sneezing, or by bites from fleas carried by rodents infected with the bacterium Yersinia pestis. Antibiotic treatment is effective if started in time.

The Government yesterday set up a 'plague intelligence team' of experts to monitor the Indian outbreak and advise on the implications for Britain. Speaking at a press conference in London, Dr Kenneth Calman, chief medical officer, said the risk of person-to-person transmission here was remote and 'there was no cause for alarm'. Surveillance systems and preventive measures for people and goods arriving from India were in place. These include spraying of passengers, cabins and baggage holds at Heathrow and Manchester, which take direct flights from India.

More than 14 countries have now banned all or some flights from India, while others yesterday tightened up screening checks for passengers on flights from India and advised people not to go there. They ignored reassurances from the World Health Organisation that travel restrictions to and through India are unnecessary, and increasingly desperate pleas from the Indian government to tourists and trading partners not to over-react.

Professor Sieghart Dittamann, of the WHO, who attended the meeting in Brussels yesterday, said: 'We must make sure that no infected rats come to Europe.' However, he warned: 'We must not overestimate what is happening . . . this plague is only affecting a part of the country. We must not destroy international trade and traffic.'

Dr Manmohan Singh, India's Finance Minister, in London yesterday, urged other countries to retain a sense of proportion. 'I do understand foreign anxiety, even if I do not agree with their reaction. Creating an atmosphere of panic where the whole thing goes underground would do a greater disservice both to India and to the outside world. The fears can be overdone.'

(Photograph omitted)

Leading article, page 14