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Abstract

Background: A key purpose of the International Health Regulations (IHR) is to prevent unwarranted interruptions to trade and travel during large and/or transnational infectious disease outbreaks. Nevertheless, such outbreaks continue to disrupt the travel industry. This aspect of the IHR has received little attention in the academic literature despite its considerable impact on affected States and commercial activity. This article outlines the challenges and gaps in knowledge regarding the relationship between outbreaks and the travel sector and discusses the opportunities for further research and policy work to overcome these challenges. Methodology: We conducted a literature review on the relationship between outbreaks and travel restrictions, with a particular focus on the 2014–16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. This review was complemented by an expert roundtable at Chatham House and further supported by case studies and qualitative interviews. Results: Numerous travel stakeholders are affected by, and affect, large-scale infectious disease outbreaks. These stakeholders react in different ways: peer pressure plays an important role for both governments and the travel sector, and the reactions of the media and public influence and are influenced by these stakeholders. While various data sources on travel are available, and World Health Organization is mandated to work with States, there is no recognized coordinating body to disseminate timely, consistent, reliable and authoritative information and best practices to all stakeholders. Conclusion: This article highlights the interdependent relationship between various travel stakeholders. The reasons for interruption of travel during the 2014–16 Ebola outbreak were complex, with decisions by States only partly contributing to the cessation. Decisions by non-state actors, particularly the travel industry itself, contributed significantly and were based on a variety of factors. Further research, analysis and policy development are required to mitigate the health and economic consequences of infectious disease outbreaks. Any further research will also need to take account of COVID-19 travel-related issues.

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