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Travel Tips for the Tropics and more

When most folks first consider foreign travel, their concerns often run to obscure tropical illnesses. Experience suggests that, while conditions like malaria, dengue fever and other conditions with exotic and unfamiliar names are risks for travelers to the tropics, much of the total illness experience can be avoided with a little common sense and preparation.

While immunizations and drugs do offer much protection against a wide array of diseases, their effectiveness is greatly increased by the observation of some practical rules-of-thumb:

Watch what you eat: Cook it, peel it, or leave it. That about sums it up. Traveler’s diarrhea is by far the commonest illness experience. Also, all water must be boiled or otherwise treated. Cast an unfriendly eye on ice cubes, other than those you have prepared yourself with boiling water. Use boiled water or hot tap water for brushing teeth. Wash your hands: Many intestinal and respiratory bugs lurk on door knobs, counter tops, etc. Use tap water for hand washing, or bring your own pre-moistened towelettes.

Prevent insect bites: A bewildering array of tropical conditions (malaria, yellow fever, dengue, leishmaniasis, to name but a few) are acquired through insect bites. Not all these conditions can be prevented or even treated by immunization or drug therapy.

Taking an insect repellent with at least 30 per cent DEET is important. However, you may find it difficult to get this concentration in Newfoundland and Labrador; for most people, the 28.5 per cent concentration is acceptable.

Insect-proof bed netting is necessary to some travel itineraries. A vaccine is available to prevent yellow fever, as are pills for malaria, but the effectiveness of both are improved by the consistent use of an insect repellent. Indeed it’s all we currently have to prevent dengue and leishmaniasis.

Avoid contact with wild and domestic animals: In many tropical countries, rabies is a risk, especially for the long term traveler, or persons whose job involves animal contact. Avoidance is sufficient and preferable to rabies vaccine for most travelers. Animal bites and snake bites require urgent medical attention.

Other conditions associated with travel:

Swimming: Skin, eye, ear and intestinal infections may be contracted when swimming in polluted fresh water sources. Salt water is safer, but it is also home to stinging and biting fish and anemones.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases: STDs are very common in developing countries. In many places, you may notice antibiotics for sale in open markets. This could be a sign that many local bugs are drug resistant. Bring condoms if you plan casual sex with strangers -- or, for that matter, with anyone other than your partner.

Transportation: Not all health risks associated with travel have a bacterial, viral or parasitic cause. Road traffic accidents are, bar none, the commonest cause of death for tourists. Don’t assume that automobiles or road upkeep are even remotely similar to what you are used to at home -- or that there are many “rules of the road.”

Environmental Illnesses: Heat, humidity and altitude all take their toll. Many travelers do not allow time for acclimatization. In a hot climate, allow time to adjust before engaging in strenuous activities. Increase your fluid intake. Sunburn can be avoided by using one of the many sun screens. SPF 15 is a good place to start. Cover up and wear a hat!

If your holiday includes either a high altitude destination or climbing mountains, remember that above 3,000 meters (10,000 feet), you will experience some symptoms of acute mountain sickness. It feels much the same as a hangover. A few days at altitude usually permits acclimatization, but serious climbers, and persons who have experienced mountain sickness before may need medication. Mountain sickness is thought to occur because the some persons are unable, especially when asleep, to increase their breathing to compensate for the “thin air.” A good maxim: Climb High, Sleep Low.

Further prevention: Attend a Travel Clinic Make sure your basic immunizations are current. A tetanus “jab” every ten years is recommended, even if you holiday in your own back yard. For short term resort holidays, this could be about all you need.

For more extensive travel itineraries, give serious consideration to booking into one of the International Travel Clinics operated by Health and Community Services Boards in each region of the province, and consider booking early. Four to six weeks prior to travel is suggested, even more if your trip is extended and your itinerary will take you off the beaten track.

Pack a first aid kit: Many illnesses can be managed by bringing a first aid kit along on your travels. Bandages, adhesive tape and antibiotic cream will take care of minor injuries. Over the counter medications for pain, fever, allergies, heartburn, diarrhea, and motion sickness can save you a long wait at a clinic or hospital. It is also important to have copies of prescriptions for eyeglasses and your routine drugs. Check with your doctor to see if you should carry a course of antibiotics to prevent or treat diarrhea while you are away.

One final and very crucial item: adequate travel insurance. Don’t leave home without it. Are you aware that contracting meningitis while hiking in Nepal could cost you as much as $15,000.00 to provide treatment and transportation home?
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