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Understanding the Health Risks of International Travel for Americans

Photo: Courtesy of Chris Brignola

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.

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.

Packing list

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.

Karine Bengualid, [email protected]

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