Travel, particularly international travel, proves for many of us to be one of the best ways to explore different cultures and expand our worldview.
In 2010 alone, there were 1 billion international arrivals for business and leisure, according to statistics from the World Tourism Organization — up from 880 million in 2009.
By 2020, the number of travelers that will embark by sea, air, and land to make deals, see friends and family, visit holy sites, or get health treatments is expected to increase to 1.6 billion, says the WTO.
With all that cultural and geographical exchange — and I hate to be the messenger here — health experts say it’s increasingly critical to guard your health, review your personal habits, and study your environment, because there’s a lot more than bedbugs to worry about as we traipse about the planet.
Whether it’s malaria, dengue fever, air rage or intoxication, taking time to evaluate our itineraries for potential threats can pay off by getting the right vaccinations and cueing in on the behavior of others around you.
The latest health alerts from Passporthealthusa.com warn that not only is influenza present worldwide, but 20 million people are diagnosed annually with measles, an illness which it says is on the rise in the U.S.
In its 2011 International Travel and Health report, the World Health Organization cited malaria as one of the most serious threats to international travelers and identified dengue fever as “widespread” in tropical and subtropical regions of Central and South America and South and Southeast Asia.
The WHO also estimates that 508 million people in 32 countries are at risk for contracting yellow fever, another mosquito-borne disease found in sub-Saharan Africa and the Amazon region of South America. Depending on your destination, it states, vaccination for yellow fever may be required.
Technion professor and health travel authority Dr. Israel Potasman, who heads the Infectious Diseases and Travel Clinic at the B’nai Zion Medical Center in Haifa, Israel, counsels travelers on their pre-travel health needs. He matches his clients’ destinations to the vaccinations they will need. He also researches the health behaviors of the travelers in Israel and around the world.
Potasman and his staff treat nearly 2,500 Israelis every year who return from travel abroad.
“Hundreds of patients who return from their trips with tropical diseases and those with illnesses like dengue fever, malaria, dysentery or typhoid are generally hospitalized,” writes Potasman. “In Israel, after malaria, dengue is the second most frequent cause of hospitalization among returning travelers.”
Potasman considers dengue fever to be a global pandemic. He warns that there is no cure for any of the four forms of dengue fever, only pain relievers, rest, and fluids. In addition, he adds, there are no vaccines for several of the most life-threatening infections, including malaria.
Vaccines aren’t 100 percent effective for everyone, Potasman says; however, some simply won’t get them.
In a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Potasman and two colleagues from the Carmel Medical Center and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, both located in Haifa, found that 20 percent of people have a fear of needles, causing them to avoid vaccinations altogether. His staff takes special care to be warm and friendly, while underplaying the sharp object about to pierce their patient’s skin.
Also, in addition to biological threats, an increasingly frequent travel safety problem is psychiatric emergencies, according to research by Matsumoto and Goebert in the 2011 WHO report. Of all in-flight disturbances, they said, 90 percent were caused by someone with either anxiety, a fear of flying, a panic attack, depression, suicidal tendencies, mania, a psychotic disorder, schizophrenia, air rage, substance abuse, withdrawal, or intoxication.
On a related topic worth noting, several Israeli researchers, including Potasman and clinic colleagues Alona Paz and Lior Segev, studied drug use in 18- to 30-year-olds who traveled to the Tropics and Southeast Asia between 2002 and 2005 and found the rate “disturbingly high,” according to Segev.
But in the end, the rational advice from Dr. Efraim Jaul, director of the Department of Geriatric Complex Nursing at Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem who publishes travel tips for the elderly and the disabled traveler, should prevail.
“Most importantly,” recommends Jaul, “make sure to enjoy yourself on vacation. There is no reason not to travel and see the world no matter what your health condition, as long as you take the proper precautions outlined.”