It’s important to be prepared and aware if you’re chasing warm weather and tropical climates this season. If you have an international trip planned, you’ll want to know about — and properly prepare for — any travel health risks you may face.
Making plans to see and do in a new place is the fun part of planning your travel experience, but it’s also important to devise a plan to stay healthy when traveling. It’s especially important to take precautions if you’re pregnant, if your immune system is compromised, if you have a chronic disease or if you’re heading abroad with young children. Before you embark on your journey, take a minute to heed the most recent warnings and travel notices issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Consider these five current health risks for international travel before you head off on your big getaway.
The Zika virus was in the news again recently when Duchess Meghan Markle and Prince Harry announced their October plans to travel to Oceania. The Duchess had also just revealed that she was pregnant — and two countries on their itinerary, Fiji and Tonga, were on the CDC’s list of areas with risk of Zika infection.
Getting infected with the Zika virus during a pregnancy can cause severe birth defects. The virus is spread mainly by mosquitoes of the genus Aedes and has been reported in many parts of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, Central and South America, and Mexico. People who are bitten then carry the virus, which can be transmitted through sexual contact.
Like so many mosquito-borne diseases, symptoms of a Zika infection can resemble those of the flu, and some people don’t even know when they’ve been infected. Zika is rarely fatal.
The same mosquitoes that transmit Zika can also carry dengue, which has appeared in more than 100 countries across the Americas, Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. If you’re infected, it may be up to two weeks before you exhibit symptoms, which are flu-like and can include minor bleeding. In severe cases of dengue, the bleeding may progress to hemorrhaging, which can lead to shock, organ failure and death. There’s currently no vaccine for dengue, so steering clear of mosquitoes is paramount.
3. Yellow Fever
There has been a large, ongoing outbreak of this disease, named so because it can cause jaundice, in Brazil since early 2018. It’s also prevalent in several countries in Africa. Travel disease experts recommend getting vaccinated at least 10 days before you leave for your trip. The pesky Aedes mosquito is to blame once again, along with the Haemagogus mosquito. Effects of yellow fever can include flu-like symptoms (including severe headache and vomiting), liver disease and skin yellowing.
In late October, the CDC issued warnings about polio; outbreaks have been reported in tropical countries that attract adventurous travelers, such as Papua New Guinea. Polio presents with an assortment of symptoms: Some are mild and flu-like; some, like paralysis, are severe. Most people don’t exhibit any symptoms at all. The disease is spread by person-to-person contact. Vaccinating children is the most effective way to protect them against polio. Zero cases of polio have originated in the United States since 1979.
In May 2018, measles was suddenly on the watch list for travelers heading to a wide range of countries, including (but by no means limited to) Brazil, Italy, Greece, Indonesia, France and the Philippines. Protection against the measles comes in the form of the MMR vaccine, which also covers mumps and rubella. Measles is commonly thought of as a virus that only children are susceptible to, but adults can contract it, too. Most symptoms of the measles look a lot like the symptoms of the common cold — coughing, a runny nose and irritated, watery eyes — but it also presents with the telltale red rash and a high fever.
How to Keep Mosquitos at Bay
It’s tempting to sum up your entire strategy to stay healthy when traveling as “avoid mosquitoes.” But what do you do if you’re going somewhere where these dangerous and determined insects are unavoidable? The American Mosquito Control Association recommends the following:
- Use products containing DEET on your skin, but don’t use a product with more than a 50 percent concentration. Cover every single inch of your skin with the product, but wash it off when you come inside. You can also use repellents that include picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus. If you’re pregnant or nursing, ask your doctor about using these products before you apply them. And talk to your pediatrician before using these repellents on your children.
- Use products containing permethrin on clothing, shoes, bed nets and your gear. Just don’t use it on your skin.
- Wear long-sleeved clothing and pants to cover as much of your skin as possible.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or you’re worried about travel health risks ahead of your big trip, make an appointment with your Lahey Health provider to ensure that you and your family are protected from getting sick while exploring the warmer parts of the world this winter.