While most of the health problems that occur during travel are benign and relatively limited, they are nevertheless troublesome and can quickly ruin a trip.
Each year, nearly 450,000 Quebecers travel to areas other than Canada, the United States and Western Europe. It is estimated that 30 to 80 percent of them suffer from diarrhea while on their trip, and 50 percent experience another health problem of some kind. While most of these health problems are benign and relatively limited, they are nevertheless troublesome and can quickly ruin a trip. The risks vary depending on the destination, on the type and length of the stay, and also on the traveller’s age, health status and occupation.
While hepatitis A, typhoid fever, tetanus, diphtheria, polio and yellow fever are not typically a source of concern in Quebec, they are an everyday reality in other countries. Vaccination offers travellers effective prevention against many of these diseases. The recommendations pertaining to these vaccines vary greatly.
Professionals at travellers’ clinics are the best people to consult for information on this topic. Taking an appointment will allow you to review your vaccination record with them. Some vaccines are routinely given in Quebec, like the diphtheria and tetanus booster, which must be renewed every ten years. The clinic may also check your protection from other vaccines, such as those against poliomyelitis, measles, rubella and the mumps, which are part of the basic arsenal.
Specific vaccines may be required based on your travel destination. For example, you may need to present a yellow fever vaccination certificate in order to meet international travel regulations.
Traveller’s diarrhea, also known as “the turista,” is usually caused by an infectious agent (a bacterium, virus or parasite). Other factors may also be at cause, including stress, jetlag, a change in eating habits or a history of bowel disease.
The most classic case occurs when travellers consume food or water that is either contaminated or poorly preserved. The cornerstone of treatment is to get adequately rehydrated in order to offset the loss of liquids which may be considerable in cases of severe diarrhea. The World Health Organization recommends a simple and effective homemade recipe to get rehydrated: a litre of bottled water, 8 teaspoons of sugar and 1 teaspoon of salt. You can add the juice of a pressed orange or lemon to improve the taste.
When experiencing fever or blood in the stools along with the diarrhea, it is advisable to take an antibiotic. It is therefore important to include this medication in your basic kit before your departure. If despite treatment you experience persistent or worsening diarrhea, with or without a fever, you should see a doctor without delay.
It is important to reduce the risk of developing traveller’s diarrhea by following some simple guidelines. For example, you should avoid non-bottled water, juices and other beverages made on the premises, fruit and vegetables that cannot be peeled, dishes containing raw eggs or insufficiently cooked meats, foods sold on the street, and unpasteurized dairy products. In order to limit the spread of various infectious germs, another must is of course to increase basic hygiene practices like hand washing. Lastly, there is now a drinkable vaccine that protects against certain types of traveller’s diarrhea.
Malaria is an infection that is transmitted through a mosquito bite. It thrives in more than 100 countries, mainly in tropical and subtropical regions where the climate is hot and humid. The disease manifests as bouts of fever, chills and headaches, along with vomiting and muscle aches.
You must take certain precautions when travelling to destinations where there is a risk of malaria. There is still no vaccine against this disease, but the risk of contamination can be reduced by using protection against mosquito bites and by taking antimalarial drugs. This medication greatly reduces the risk of contracting malaria, although it does not guarantee 100 percent protection against the disease. Travellers must begin taking the medication before their departure in order to ensure maximum protection.
Insects and mosquitoes
Insects of all shapes and colours abound in tropical regions. These insects can be transmission vectors for diseases such as dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, West Nile virus and yellow fever. It is important to keep in mind that mosquitoes carrying these diseases are just as active during the day as at night, and that they are the most active at dusk.
The risk of insect bites can be reduced by applying insect repellent every three or four hours, paying special attention to the ankles, wrist and neck. Products containing DEET (in percentages that vary depending on the age of the user) are particularly recommended. Another good preventive measure is to sleep under a mosquito net that has been treated with an insecticide.
One last recommendation is to wear long-sleeved shirts and pants that are tight-knit and light in colour, and to avoid wearing perfumes and deodorants, as they may attract insects.
First-aid kits, medication and prescriptions
In order to avoid unpleasant surprises when travelling abroad, travellers should make sure to pack all the necessary health products. It is a wise idea to purchase a small first-aid kit adapted to your needs; it could save you a lot of trouble. If you take prescription medication on a regular basis, bring more than necessary in case an unexpected situation arises. You must keep the medication in its original packaging, as sold by the pharmacy, which includes the patient label bearing all essential information.
Ask your pharmacist for a list of all your medication, including both generic and brand names. Keep your medication in your carry-on baggage. If ever your luggage is lost en route, you won’t be caught off guard. If you need to use syringes, make sure to have a letter from your physician justifying their use. The same applies to narcotics.
Likewise, if you wear eyeglasses or contact lenses, it is a good idea to bring a spare set or to bring your prescription so that you can replace them easily if you break or lose them.
The services offered by a travellers’ clinic
When you visit a travellers’ clinic prior to your trip, the professionals you meet there will be able to guide you through the recommendations above. During your talk with the specialized nurse and your consultation with the doctor, you will be given all the necessary information on vaccination, prescriptions, written documentation and disease prevention. Most importantly, you will have an opportunity to ask all your questions and get answers from specialized professionals. A travellers’ clinic is an essential reference for anyone wishing to travel safely and intelligently.
After you leave the clinic, all that’s left is to go see your pharmacist! Pharmacists are a precious and accessible resource in preparing a successful trip. They can give you advice pertaining to disease prevention or medication, and they can help you put together a first-aid kit that is adapted to your needs. Don’t hesitate to consult them!