Understanding the Health Risks of International Travel for Americans
Health and Nutrition Americans take about 72 million international trips per year, but many are still unprepared for the risks associated with overseas travel.
Scott Morcott, M.D., FAAFP
Medical Director of Passport Health in Chicago & Wisconsin, Family Practice Physician at Advocate Condell Medical Center and Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital
Why should travelers be concerned about cholera?
We’ve seen more outbreaks of cholera in the world in the last decade or so. We’ve also seen travelers who are traveling to areas with active cholera transmission.
What can travelers do to protect themselves?
Before you travel, speak to a travel medicine expert and make sure you understand your level of risk. If you are traveling to an area of active transmission, getting vaccinated for cholera is a good idea. During your trip, drink water that's in a sealed container, avoid ice in your drinks and eat food that’s been cooked well and is warm.
International travel has made the world a very small place. So small, in fact, that diseases previously undetected in the United States, such as Zika, have found their way. This is why it’s imperative travelers know and understand the risks associated with overseas travel.
So what can Americans do to ensure not only their own health and safety when traveling internationally, but the health and safety of fellow Americans? We spoke with Dr. Gary Brunette, the branch chief of the Travelers’ Health Department at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, GA, who shed a little bit of insight into the matter.
The best defense is a good offense
The first thing you should do is make an appointment to see your primary care physician or travel health expert about 4-6 weeks prior to departure.
Understanding where (and when) you’ll be traveling will allow your doctor to assess all the potential health and safety risks. For example, areas with bad sanitation and poor water quality bring the risk of contracting diseases, such as cholera and typhoid.
Your doctor will help create a medical plan of attack to prepare you for travel and check to see what vaccinations you may need.
“If you are not adequately protected against a known disease, you not only risk contracting the disease, but potentially bringing it home with you.”
Making an appointment as early as possible is important because some vaccines and medications must be administered by following a specific regimen, as these take time to take effect.
Dr. Brunette also suggests speaking with your doctor about, “how to make good food and water choices, how to protect yourself from mosquito and other insect bites, environmental hazards and so forth.”
Don’t leave home without it
Though you might have medical coverage in the United States, this does not necessarily mean your plan covers you while traveling outside of the country — this is why medical travel insurance is necessary.
“We think it’s very important people have supplemental health coverage to cover all their medical needs while they’re overseas should the need arise,” Dr. Brunette says. “And in addition to that, it’s very important that people going to certain destinations consider evacuation insurance.”
Evacuation insurance can cover the costs of getting you to the nearest medical center, airlifting you as well as repatriation (getting you back on U.S. soil). The cost of evacuations can quickly rise above $100,000 so you should know the risks involved with visiting these remote locales.
Protect one, protect all
If you are not adequately protected against a known disease, you not only risk contracting the disease, but potentially bringing it home with you.
“They’re not only protecting themselves by being vaccinated when they travel, but are also protecting their communities so that they don’t come back and introduce the disease in the [United States],” states Dr. Brunette.
Ask your doctor about the types of items you should pack. Things like over-the-counter pain medication, anti-diarrheal or laxatives, antihistamines and/or cold medication might come in handy. Don’t forget to take any prescription medication and ensure you have enough to last you through the entire length of your trip.
Buying medication overseas is a no-no, according to Dr. Brunette. “There is a big international problem with counterfeit medications and in some parts of the world, almost 50 percent of medications available are counterfeit. It’s extremely difficult to tell the difference between legitimate and counterfeit medications.”
For a more information, visit the CDC’s travel health kit list on their website.