Stay healthy on the road

When planning that trip of a lifetime to Egypt, or imagining yourself in Mexico during the winter months, the last thing on your mind may be the risk of disease.  But the last thing you want to do is bring home a nasty bug that can make you feel sick – or worse, cause permanent damage or even death.

Risks of travel-related illness
Currently one million people each week travel between the borders of developed and developing countries. The European Travel Health Advisory Board (ETHAB) completed a survey in early 2003 of more than 8,000 travellers leaving for more than 70 “health-risk” locations.  They found the majority of travellers did not seek information about health risks related to their travel and did not believe that they were at risk of contracting travel-related diseases.  67 percent of travellers interviewed for the ETHAV survey departing from New York City did not even update their vaccination for one of the most common of health risks – tetanus.

Yet for every planeload of 333 unprotected tourists returning after a stay of one month in a high risk destination there is likely to be one passenger who has contracted hetitis A. Mexico and the Carribean are recognized by the WHO as high risk areas for this liver-damaging disease, yet many Canadians travel south without any awareness of the risk involved.

Vaccinations and education
Vaccinations before you go are one great way to prevent a nasty bug.  “I urge people to visit their health-care professional, ideally four to six weeks before departure abroad, to discussion the appropriate precautionary measure to take,” says Dr. Jay Keystone, MD, FRCPC, Centre for Travel and Tropical Medicine, Toronto General Hospital.  “Vaccination is the easiest and most effective way to prevent many travel-related illnesses, and is often a lifetime investment. For the most frequent vaccine-preventable illnesses, such as hepatitis A and B, the majority of vaccinated people are protected for life.” 

You can also protect yourself by taking the time to learn about diseases prevalent in the area in which you’re travelling – and how they spread. In some cases one way to avoid infection is to – yes, just as your mother said – not drink the local water. Undercooked or improperly stored food can be another culprit. Some diseases are spread via insects, so even packing a good repellent  – and using it – can help keep you healthy.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has created a manual in order to help travellers develop travel health strategies.  It includes a handy checklist and predeparture medication questions. The online version also provides the latest information on infectious disease risk for each country or region.

The 2003 International Travel and Health Manual is available online at: