Good Neighbor Insurance agents understand the importance of making sure all health precautions are taken care of prior going overseas. I travel overseas regularly to far off lands to scuba dive. Therefore, I need to make sure all my shots are up-to-date and take those extra health precautions.
Some of the world’s most spectacular destinations are also home to some of the world’s nastiest bugs and diseases. Yellow fever, malaria, and other illnesses can strike international travelers at any time. It’s smart to check the CDC travel health notices for safety and security alerts that may affect your travel. Just because you’re on vacation or on a business trip does not mean sickness ends the moment you board the airplane heading to another country. Below are tips on what shots and vaccinations one should take, as well as health precautions to those countries you are visiting.
Of course, the foundation of your health precautions for your overseas travels starts with an international travel plan. There are travel plans for those traveling overseas for a few days or a few weeks and for those who will be residing overseas for many years. Either way, international health insurance plans are there to take care of those worse case situations.
Shots and Vaccines
In addition to making sure you are up-to-date on your routine U.S. shots and vaccines, there are shots/vaccines that will protect you as you travel overseas. The specific shots/vaccines you need depend on your travel destination, your health, and the shots/vaccines you’ve already had. Be sure to get your shots at least 4 – 6 weeks before traveling to give them time to start working. Also, some shots/vaccines require more than one dose.
Hepatitis A Vaccine
One of the great pleasures of overseas travel is trying a variety of exotic cuisines. Unfortunately, contaminated food or water can spread infections, including hepatitis A. This viral infection, which causes inflammation of the liver, is common throughout the developing world and is very contagious. If you were not vaccinated as a child, ask your doctor about getting the two-dose vaccine series before venturing abroad. The doses should be scheduled at least six months apart, so you’ll want to allow enough time to get both. There is a combination Hep-A and Hep B vaccine administered in a three-dose series.
Hepatitis B Vaccine
The hepatitis B virus also causes liver inflammation, but it is spread through blood or other body fluids infected with the virus rather than food. Many chronically infected people carry the virus in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Pacific Islands, Caribbean Islands, and the Amazon River basin. The CDC recommends the hepatitis B vaccine for all unvaccinated travelers over 60 years old to these areas. It is recommended for all unvaccinated travelers under 60 years old, especially adventure travelers, missionaries, Peace Corps volunteers, and military personnel. The vaccine is given in two or three doses and usually takes six months to become fully vaccinated. There is a combination Hep-A and Hep B vaccine administered in a three-dose series.
Influenza (Flu) Shot
If you get an annual flu shot, factor your travel plans into the timing of your vaccine. In the Southern Hemisphere, flu epidemics are most common from April through September. So, families planning a summer vacation in Australia, for example, should make sure they receive the flu shot before departing.
This virus is mostly a risk to travelers to parts of Asia and the western Pacific. It is spread by mosquito bites and can cause disorientation, coma, and seizures. There is a vaccine available to people traveling to areas with Japanese Encephalitis, especially those who plan to hike, camp, or visit rural areas.
Polio is a life-threatening disease caused by a virus that affects the nervous system. This debilitating disease is still active in many parts of Africa and Asia. The germs can be spread through food, water, and contact with an infected person. Even if you received a polio vaccine as a child, you may need a booster to make sure you’re protected if you are at increased risk of exposure. The Polio booster is a three-dose series administered across a six-month period.
Rabies is found on all continents, except Antarctica, and is spread through the bite of an infected animal. Street dogs in Africa, Asia, and South America pose the greatest risk to travelers, followed by monkeys living among the temples of Asia. Without treatment, rabies is fatal. A three-dose vaccine is available, though it does not eliminate the need for treatment after the bite. It buys you time to reach medical care, and cuts the doses needed.
Tetanus infections often result from skin injuries, including frostbite, burns, or punctures. The culprit is a bacterium that occurs in all parts of the world. Tetanus can be fatal. Booster shots are recommended every 10 years.
Typhoid Fever Vaccine
Typhoid fever is a life-threatening infection common in the developing world. It is caused by bacteria found in contaminated food or drink. Several hundred Americans get typhoid fever every year – most while visiting Asia, South America, and Africa. The CDC recommends the typhoid vaccine at least 1-2 weeks before travel to these regions. If you have had the vaccine in the past, ask if you need a booster from your doctor.
Yellow Fever Vaccine
Along the border of Argentina and Brazil, Iguazu Falls attracts visitors from all over the world. Unfortunately, it also attracts mosquitoes that carry the yellow fever virus. Yellow fever occurs in parts of South and Central America, as well as tropical Africa. This virus can be life-threatening. Vaccination is required to visit certain countries, with a booster shot needed after 10 years.
Bedbugs are not choosy about their accommodations – they check into hostels all the way up to five-star resorts across the globe. They cause itchy red bites on the face, neck, arms, hands, or other body parts – but these marks can take up to 14 days to appear. To detect an infestation more quickly, look for tiny bugs in the folds of mattresses or sheets, rust-colored spots on the mattress, and sweet musty odor.
Chikungunya is a virus that causes joint and muscle pain, and a fever. The symptoms normally last a short time, but they occasionally last longer and can complicate chronic illnesses for the elderly. Chikungunya is spread by mosquito bites, so the best way to avoid the virus is to avoid mosquitos. Cases have been reported in Africa, southeast Asia, South America and the U.S.
Half of all food-borne illnesses are due to unwashed hands. Washing hands is one of the best ways to keep yourself from illnesses such as hepatitis A, the flu, food poisoning, and diarrhea. It’s best to wash your hands with soap and water for at least twenty seconds. If that’s not possible, use hand sanitizer.
In travelers returning from the Caribbean, South Central Asia, and Central America, dengue fever is the most common cause of fever. Recently, small numbers of the mosquito-borne illness have been reported in Key West, Florida. While most cases are mild, some people develop dengue hemorrhagic fever, which can be fatal. There is no vaccine, but travelers can reduce their risk by protecting against mosquito bites.
Travelers’ diarrhea is a top travel-related illness, affecting up to half of international travelers. People visiting Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, are the most at risk. It is rarely dangerous and almost always goes away on its own. Still, you can take steps to prevent it – steps that also help prevent more serious diarrhea illnesses such as cholera. The CDC recommends avoiding tap water, food sold by street vendors, raw or undercooked meats and seafood, and unpeeled fruits and veggies.
Despite all your precautions, there is still a chance you may get travelers’ diarrhea. If you are heading to an area where this is likely, you may want to ask your doctor about bringing antibiotics. Cases of moderate-to-severe travelers’ diarrhea can be treated with a course of antibiotics. If diarrhea persists after taking antibiotics, it is important to get tested for possible parasitic infections.
Lymphatic Filariasis is caused by a tiny parasitic worm that spreads through bites. It affects millions in Asia, Africa, and the Western Pacific, and a fraction go on to develop elephantiasis. In the Americas, the disease occurs in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, and Brazil. Short-term travelers are at a low risk, but it is prudent to avoid mosquito bites by using repellant bug spray, wear long sleeves and pants, and sleep under a mosquito net.
Bring a first aid kit that includes wound care supplies, sunburn care, medications, copies of your prescriptions, and immunization records. If you don’t have a first-aid kit yet, you can make or buy your own. Check out How to Build or Choose a First-Aid Kit and this First-Aid Kit Checklist for more details. You may also want to sign up for a first aid class to brush up on your preparedness skills.
Sleeping on the beach may sound romantic until you consider the infected sand flies. Their bites can spread a disease called Leishmaniasis. The most common type, found in parts of the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America, causes skin sores and ulcers. A less common form affects internal systems and causes life-threatening disease. To avoid bites, stay indoors from dusk to dawn. Wear long-sleeved shirts, pants, and socks. Bug spray and bed nets can also help.
Leptospirosis is a disease caused by bacteria. Infected animals spread it through their urine, which gets into water or soil and can live there for weeks or months. You can get infected if it enters your eyes, nose, mouth, or broken skin. Without proper treatment with antibiotics, people may develop serious problems with their kidneys, liver, or lining of the brain and spinal cord. In some cases, leptospirosis can cause death.
Leptospirosis is most common in temperate or tropical climates. Travelers are most likely to get it if they visit flooded areas, swim in contaminated lakes or rivers, visit urban areas with poor sanitation, or touch animals or their body fluids. They can protect themselves by avoiding touching water or objects that may be contaminated, not contacting freshwater after flooding or heavy rain, wearing protective clothing and bandaging wounds, and boiling water to make it safe to drink.
Malaria is a life-threatening disease carried by mosquitoes. It is most common in sub-Saharan Africa, but also occurs in parts of South Asia and South America. Travelers should ask their doctor about the pros and cons of preventative anti-malarial medications. Other strategies include using mosquito repellants (30%-50% DEET for adults), wearing long sleeves and pants outdoors, and sleeping under insecticide-treated mosquito nets.
Schistosomiasis is a disease caused by a parasitic worm that lives in certain types of freshwater snails. Left untreated, it can damage the liver, intestine, spleen, lungs, and bladder. Travelers generally contract this disease in Africa, South America, the Middle East, China, and Southeast Asia. Many cases have come from popular tourist destinations in sub-Saharan Africa. Adventure travelers, Peace Corps volunteers, missionaries, soldiers, and ecotourists are more likely to get it because of their activities. Travelers can protect themselves by not swimming in freshwater sources, drinking safe water, and boiling water used for bathing.
Tuberculosis (TB) is more common in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, although it is found throughout the world. The infection is spread when a contagious person coughs. Travelers who spend time working or volunteering in hospitals, prisons, or homeless shelters have a higher risk to TB exposure. If you feel you may have been exposed, it is important to get a skin test. Prompt treatment is the key to avoiding complications.
Although the Zika virus generally presents mild symptoms, infection during pregnancy can cause severe birth defects. It is spread through the bite of an infected mosquito or can be sexually transmitted from an infected man or woman. Travelers going to areas with Zika risk should prevent mosquito bites and avoid sex or use protection. Pregnant women should avoid travel to areas with Zika outbreaks altogether.
What about Fruits and Veggies?
With a few precautions, you can enjoy fruits and vegetables while abroad. Avoid raw fruits and veggies, unless you can peel them yourself. A good rule of thumb: boil it, cook it, peel it, or leave it. Also, be wary of salads that may have been washed in tap water or smoothies made with non-purified ice. It’s best to avoid buffets and any foods left out for extended periods.
Precautions for Your Destination Country
The CDC publishes information about precautions that should be taken to avoid contracting viruses and diseases in each country. On the CDC website, you can select the country you plan to visit and learn about the prominent viruses and diseases, and how to avoid them.
Doug Gulleson loves to scuba dive overseas and makes sure he always has his U.S. health care and overseas health care information with him when he travels. Keep our blog close by to you for continual updates on the changes with the U.S. healthcare system.