Health hazards to look out for when travelling overseas

Does the sound of an exotic infection like Yellow Fever fill you with dread? How about a touch of Japanese Encephalitis? These diseases are just as unpleasant and dangerous as they sound and they can turn your tropical travel into a disaster.

We enjoy a well regulated public health system in Australia and we benefit from effective disease control, but some other countries are not so fortunate. Awareness of the risks, preventative measures and smart travel habits are essential to avoid being struck by some truly ghastly illnesses; some of which can be fatal.

Australians love tropical destinations, such as Bali, Vietnam, Thailand and India, but conditions in these countries can be risky and you need to be particularly careful if travelling to them. Insect-borne infections, such as malaria and dengue fever are widespread in Southeast Asia and Oceania. Japanese encephalitis occurs throughout a large part of Asia and the Western Pacific region, while Yellow fever occurs in parts of Africa and Central and South America. Even diseases that you may have thought were confined to history, like Bubonic Plague, are still active in some countries.

Vaccinations – an important first step
Vaccines are an important first line of defence and it’s important to be informed about what is out there by consulting sites such as; smartraveller.gov.au and health.gov.au as well as speaking to your local medical practitioner or travel doctor on specific vaccines for the countries you are travelling to.

Equally important is to make sure your standard domestic vaccines are all up to date, as the diseases they protect against may be a greater threat overseas.

Minimising risks
Not every disease has a vaccine to prevent it, however, so it is critical to maintain prudent practices to avoid the risk of infection. Bites or scratches from rabid dogs and other mammals are one source of contamination, while water borne parasites can be a risk if you intend on doing water based activities such as rafting or swimming. Of course you can cocoon yourself from having a good time, but limit your exposure to these factors as much as possible and take sensible precautions.

Mosquitoes and fleas are the carriers for many diseases, so preventative measures like screens and repellents are a good idea. Personal hygiene is important too and simple things like washing your hands regularly and keeping fingers away from your mouth will help keep you safe.

What’s in the water?
Drinking in tropical countries and indeed on any overseas travel is fraught with danger. The simple rule is never to drink tap water and to limit all intake to bottled water. Other bottled or canned drinks, such as soft drinks or alcohol, are generally safe, but be sure the seals are unbroken and stick to known brands.

While watching what you drink may seem a no-brainer, oral contamination can occur in other ways that are not so obvious, such as having ice in your drink (no it doesn’t kill all the bugs) or even brushing your teeth (use bottled water for that too).

Food risks can be minimised through intelligent practices, such as choosing fruit that can be peeled, being careful with cutlery (or taking your own), stick to well patronised eateries if dining out and opt for packaged foods with reputable brand names where possible.

Are probiotics a good idea?
Some studies have shown that probiotics can improve digestion and aid in disease and immune function and they are sometimes used in the treatment of acute infectious diarrhoea. They can be taken either as a supplement in tablet, capsule or powder form and are also a component in yoghurts and fermented dairy drinks.

Not everyone will benefit from probiotics and a person in good general health should not really need them, but there is certainly no harm in taking them and you may feel it may just give that extra margin of assurance.

Be prepared for the worst
The costs of treating diseases in a foreign country can be heavy and the cost of getting medical evacuation back to Australia can be astronomical. In these situations Medibank will not cover you and the Australian Government will generally not fund transport for you to return, so it is essential to take out good travel insurance before you leave. Make sure it covers medical expenses for injury or illness and be sure to fully disclose any pre-existing medical conditions in writing, so that cover is not compromised when you need it most.