Passport, Tickets, Vaccinations: Remember Your Health When Traveling Abroad

Ask the neighbors to water your plants and feed the dog
Pack extra socks and bring plenty of sunscreen
And don't forget that yellow fever vaccination…
OK, so the last item on this pre-vacation to-do list might seem a little out of the ordinary. But for travelers to certain areas of the world, particularly underdeveloped or developing countries, vaccinations and other health precautions are vital to a safer trip.
Health-related travel dangers can lurk in virtually every area of the world, from an unpleasant condition known as traveler's diarrhea to a variety of potentially life-threatening illnesses that can be transmitted through food, water, insects and animals.
"Just plan ahead," advises UW Health travel nurse Joyce DeSpain, RN, who works under the direction of Richard Reich, MD, in the UW Health Travel Medicine Clinic.
UW Health travel clinics offer immunizations that are required for travel to certain countries, such as the yellow fever vaccine if your destination is in Africa or South America. The clinics also offer recommended vaccinations and precautionary drugs, such as prescription drugs to prevent malaria if you're traveling to the Caribbean, Southeast Asia or several other areas of the world prone to the mosquito-borne infection.
"No matter where you're going, it wouldn't be a bad idea to call either your primary care doctor or travel clinic just to get a feel for whether you need anything," DeSpain says.
Allow time for preparation
Located at University Hospital and University Station Clinic in Madison, UW Health's travel medicine staff also provide assistance with pre-travel planning, including prevention of altitude and motion sickness.
Vaccination recommendations and requirements vary widely depending on the area of the world where a traveler is headed. UW Health travel clinic staff can help you tailor your vaccination and preventive medication plan to your destination.
The travel clinics also point travelers to several Internet resources. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a travel Web site at listing vaccination and preparation guidelines for virtually every destination in the world. Also, the U.S. Department of State Web site at lists health-related travel advisories, terrorist alerts and timely warnings about warfare and violence erupting around the world. The site also gives information about finding doctors abroad.
UW Health travel clinics recommend allowing yourself enough time to get vaccinations or preventive drugs well in advance of your trip.
For example, a traveler must begin taking certain anti-malaria medications two weeks before departure. And the yellow fever vaccine must be administered at least 10 days before departure. Yellow fever is a potentially fatal mosquito-borne viral disease that ranges in severity from an influenza-like syndrome to severe hepatitis and hemorrhagic fever.
"Yellow fever vaccination can be regulated by some governments, because it is a higher risk disease," DeSpain said. "It may be required for entry in some countries in Africa, South America, Panama, Trinidad or Tobago, and the order of your itinerary can sometimes affect whether it's needed for other countries, if you've traveled through a yellow fever risk area."
Traveling with children will also require extra preparation. As a general rule, UW Health's travel clinics and the CDC advise that children traveling abroad should be up to date on their routine childhood vaccination schedules. If necessary, some portions of the schedule can be accelerated so that as many vaccines as possible can be given before departure.
Guarding against insect dangers
Travel to nearly any tropical location also requires preparation to guard against insects such as mosquitoes that can transmit a variety of illnesses. Those include malaria and dengue fever, a rapidly expanding tropical viral disease characterized by high fever, severe frontal headache, and joint and muscle pain.
"Taking insect precautions is really smart," DeSpain said. "Your first defense is insect repellant."
DEET is generally recommended as a repellant, and the CDC advises that pre-treating clothing, shoes, bed netting and camping gear with an insecticide called Permethrin can provide another layer of defense against ticks, mosquitoes and other arthropods that may carry disease.
No matter where you're planning to travel, CDC guidelines and UW Health's Travel Medicine Clinics recommend universal precautions for all travelers, including: 
  • Wash hands often with soap and water.
  • Because motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of injury among travelers, walk and drive defensively. Avoid travel at night if possible and always use seat belts.
  • Don't eat or drink dairy products unless you know they have been pasteurized.
  • Eat only thoroughly cooked food or fruits and vegetables you have peeled yourself.
  • Never eat undercooked ground beef and poultry, raw eggs, and unpasteurized dairy products. Raw shellfish is particularly dangerous to persons who have liver disease or compromised immune systems. 
Traveler's diarrhea is generally caused by bacteria in the food and drink consumed abroad, so DeSpain said the travel clinic advises travelers to follow the CDC guidelines about food consumption and to bring along an over-the-counter anti-diarrheal drug such as Imodium and sometimes a prescription antibiotic so you can self-treat if safe medical care is not available.
"If symptoms persist, you should seek safe medical care as soon as possible," DeSpain said. Medical evacuation and travel insurance information is available at
Contact Our Travel Medicine Clinics

Date Published: 06/06/2007

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