Health and travel: forewarned is forearmed!

Doctor Paul-Henri Consigny, Director of the Pasteur Institute Medical Centre and a specialist in travel medicine talks about the potential health risks you may face during trips abroad.

  • What risks do travellers face? 
At least one traveller in two suffers from a health problem. Most conditions are benign and primarily consist of traveller’s diarrhoea. Then, there are skin problems (sunburn, allergies, insect bites, and infections) and respiratory problems related to changes in temperature such as the shift from an air-conditioned hotel room to the heat outside. Over and above these minor problems, more than 4,000 French travellers contract malaria which causes between 10 and 25 deaths every year.
Overall, 10% of travellers consult a doctor during their trip or in some cases require repatriation.
 
  • In which countries are the risks highest? 
Health risks vary between regions and periods of the year but also depend on the conditions of travel. 
A tourist going on a package tour and staying in a comfortable hotel won’t face the same risks as an adventurer setting out with a tent and a backpack. 
 
Generally speaking, respiratory problems are international but the risk of diarrhoea is greater in Asia and South America, malaria exists predominately in Africa and dengue fever in Asia and South America.
 
One-off epidemics like chikungunya fever on Reunion Island can be added to on-going risks. Risks are concentrated in inter-tropical areas and developing countries by the combination of humidity and poor quality of water, nutrition and hygiene.
 
  • Preparing your trip health-wise and taking precautions when you arrive
Before anything else, if a traveller wants to return home in good health, they need to be in good health when they set off. It is therefore advisable to consult a doctor who will assess your fitness to travel given the conditions, duration and destination of the trip. Some trips won’t be recommended for people who are frail or have a medical condition which hasn’t stabilised. It’s also an opportunity to get booster shots and the recommended vaccinations for your destination. The yellow fever vaccine is the only one which is mandatory for some countries but it’s far from sufficient.
If the destination is affected by malaria, medical treatment should start before departure and be continued during and after the trip. The traveller should also protect themselves from mosquitoes by wearing long clothing and using repellents and mosquito nets. Insurance covering medical expenses and repatriation is always strongly recommended.
 
A few health tips for travellers: the traveller should be careful what they eat and avoid raw vegetables, ice or ice cubes. They should make sure they only drink water which is in a closed bottle, boiled, filtered or disinfected. Food should be eaten cooked and hot, on a "boil, cook, peel or throw away" basis after routinely washing their hands with soap. Finally, the traveller should see a doctor quickly if they feel unwell or feverish on returning home.
Getting information early on and following some simple rules can help the traveller reduce the risks allowing them to fully enjoy their holiday.
 

Making medical preparations for your trip

On its website, the Pasteur Institute offers useful information on international vaccinations and travel medicine.
Country profiles describe the health situation in your destination, recommended vaccinations and preventive measures to guard against risks. Advice is also provided to travellers on what drugs to take in their first aid kit.
Website of the Pasteur Institute Medical Centre

 

Date of publication May 11 2012

Other articles on this subject

Traveling to a country where malaria is a risk
Yellow fever and the International certificate of vaccination
Trips and Vaccines: What to Look For
Air travel and jet lag
Before the departure: medical precautions
Travelling when pregnant
Health tip: how to avoid food poisoning