Wuhan coronavirus: Is it safe to travel?

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Frequent and vigorous hand washing is again critical to reducing viral transmissions. (FILE PHOTO)

(CNN) — Much is still unknown about the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak and health officials are urging vigilance.

That means travelers crisscrossing the globe should be aware of the virus, steer clear of heavily impacted areas and exercise some of the same kinds of preventive measures they'd use to avoid influenza and other illnesses.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has raised its travel advisory for Wuhan, China, to the highest level. The "Warning - Level 3" status urges travelers to avoid all nonessential travel to Wuhan.

Travelers should "remain alert if traveling to other parts of China" by avoiding contact with sick people, animals and animal markets, the CDC recommends. Other parts of China currently carry a Level 1 advisory.

The United Kingdom's Foreign and Commonwealth Office has also advised against nonessential travel to Wuhan.

The Wuhan coronavirus does not yet constitute a public health emergency of international concern, the World Health Organization announced Thursday.

"Make no mistake. This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Thursday. "It may yet become one."

Advice for travelers

With so much uncertainty, exercising caution is key. Medical professionals offer this advice in response to travel concerns:

Q: How worried should travelers outside the most impacted areas be about the Wuhan coronavirus?

In this era of global travel, you can never say the risk is zero of being exposed to something, says Dr. Yoko Furuya, medical director of infection prevention and control at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

But most of the cases so far have involved Wuhan and surrounding cities.

"While the risk is not going to be zero, generally speaking there's not going to be a particularly elevated risk" outside that area, she says.

It's not a big concern for US travelers traveling domestically, says Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of medicine in Vanderbilt University's division of infectious diseases.

Travelers heading to China should be more concerned, he adds.

"As a matter of fact, I have heard colleagues say to a patient or two, "Gee, do you have to go to China right now? Why don't you wait a little bit?"

People who have traveled to Wuhan in the last two weeks and are feeling sick with fever, cough or are having difficulty breathing should seek medical attention right away and call ahead to inform providers of recent travel and symptoms, according to CDC guidelines.

Q: Is travel less safe in general because other passengers could be coming from Wuhan and nearby cities?

No, says Schaffner. He compared the Wuhan virus to influenza, which by the time flu season is over "will have caused literally thousands of hospitalizations and unfortunately several thousand deaths."

"The coronavirus will be a blip on the horizon in comparison, but we have a little outbreak of corona anxiety at the present time because it's new, it's mysterious ..."

Every business traveler should be on alert and informed of what's going on around them, says Dr. Robert Quigley, senior vice president and regional medical director at International SOS & MedAire. The medical assistance company supports workforces around the globe.

The globalization of the workforce means we don't know if someone at O'Hare airport in Chicago might walk by a coughing passenger just in from Wuhan. That's why universal precautions like those used to prevent the spread of influenza would apply for any traveler, he adds.

"This just gives us a heightened awareness and a reminder to be careful," says Quigley.

Q: Are precautions like face masks and hand sanitizer effective?

Schaffner has received a lot of questions about whether people should be wearing masks to avoid infection.

He realizes it's culturally very common in Asia, but he says the CDC doesn't recommend it for the general public because "the scientific basis showing that people in the community wearing masks actually has any benefit is very thin and questionable."

More fitted respirator masks may be used in medical settings, but are generally impractical for the general public, Schaffner says.

"Good hand hygiene is always a really good idea to protect yourself from any viruses and other pathogens in your environment," says Furuya.

The CDC recommends washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. An alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be used when soap and water are not available.

Q: What precautions should travelers to other parts of China take?

Nonessential travel to Wuhan is discouraged, and travel to other parts of China should be undertaken with caution.

Quigley recommends a flexible itinerary that can be adapted to new information and guidance as it becomes available. He also suggests allowing extra time as health screenings have been implemented around many transportation hubs. Avoid traveling with any flu-like symptoms.

Schaffner urges travelers to "stay away from those live animal markets, please. And try to avoid people who are coughing and sneezing. Of course, we do have a lot of influenza out there, but it's still good advice. And do an awful lot of hand hygiene."

Since the source of the virus is still unknown, Schaffner also encourages visitors to rural China to stay away from agricultural animals such as chickens and pigs.

The CDC also advises avoiding animals, animal markets and products such as uncooked meat.

Q: Is air travel more vulnerable because of its global reach?

For parts of the world outside of the heavily affected region, air travel is likely where more of the risk will lie, says Furuya, because of the increased likelihood of encountering international travelers from areas with high incidence of the virus.

"When it comes to the global spread of outbreaks, air travel is usually how things kind of spread quickly from country to country," she says.

Schaffner says the spread of winter respiratory illnesses on airplanes is always a concern. "More than once, I'm quite certain personally that I have acquired a winter virus on the aircraft while traveling or working my way through crowded airports," he says.

Frequent and vigorous hand washing is again critical to reducing viral transmissions.

Clearly this is of particular concern in China right now as citizens there are traveling en masse for Lunar New Year celebrations, he adds.

Many of the large public celebrations have been canceled to stem the spread of the virus.

This story was first published on CNN.com, "Wuhan coronavirus: Is it safe to travel?"