Travel smart, travel healthy

Tuesday, January 17, 2012 - 12:13pm

By Carmen MacKenzie

This time of year, when the chill of the air sinks into our scarves and darkness seems to seep from the sky into our spirits, many of us get the itch to head to warmer climates.

Be it a fun-filled holiday with the kids for March break, a romantic getaway to the Caribbean, a volunteer mission, or a trip overseas to visit family or business clients, stepping foot in another country brings a number of health and safety risks, some of which may surprise you.

Julia Jewett, a public health nurse who specializes in travel health and works at the International Travel Clinic in Burnside, says it’s important to plan ahead – and to do a little digging about your final destination.

Know where you’re going

Millions of Canadians travel to destinations that put them at risk of contracting a variety of illnesses, from malaria, yellow fever and hepatitis A and B to the most common complaint among travelers: diarrhea.

“We recommend doing research online and booking an appointment with a travel clinic to find out everything you can about being prepared for your trip, including getting your vaccines” Jewett said.

Jewett recommends the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Travel Health website as a valuable resource. It lists many of the destinations most visited by Canadians, and includes travel health advisories, information about the local environment and what to watch for related to that country’s food and water, insects, animals, malaria and person-to-person infections. They also list vaccines you may want to consider and any vaccines the destination country may require you to have upon entry.

Hepatitis A and B: where you can get them may surprise you

Hepatitis A is a disease that occurs worldwide and is generally associated with poor sanitation and poor hygiene – even among high-end resorts and hotels.

Travelers can contract the virus several ways, including swimming in a contaminated pool, drinking a beverage with contaminated ice or eating a salad that was washed with contaminated water.

Mild cases last from one to two weeks, but severe cases of hepatitis A can make you sick for several months.

While not as easy to contract, hepatitis B is highly contagious and can develop into a chronic, contagious illness for life. Travelers can contract hepatitis B from contaminated instruments – be it an unsterile first-aid or surgical tool for a medical or dental emergency, a razor at a barbershop or contaminated spa tools. Travelers can also contract the disease through unprotected sex, sharing needles, tattooing and acupuncture.

The good news is, Hepatitis A and B are, in many cases, preventable with a combination of getting vaccinated and avoiding the risks.

It’s never too late to get your vaccine

For those making last-minute travel plans, it’s important to know that while you may be beyond the ideal timeframe to be vaccinated (depending on the vaccine), it’s never too late.

“For some vaccines, it’s better to get a shot the day before you go,” Jewett advised, “than to forgo one altogether.”

She explained that while many vaccines take four to eight weeks to develop immunity in our system, some illnesses take several days or weeks to develop as well.

Therefore, Jewett suggested, “you’re better off with a few days worth of immunity than none at all.”

A trip home may place you at greater risk

While Jewett sees people who travel for all kinds of reasons, there appear to be more cases of illness and infection affecting people returning from a trip to visit friends or relatives.

“For example, the only case of malaria I saw in three years of working with the communicable disease team was from someone who went home (to a Malaria-endemic country) to visit family for Christmas.”

Travel Medicine, a key reference for travel medicine professionals, says data show people visiting friends and relatives are eight times more likely to acquire malaria than are tourist travelers. These travelers “…now make up nearly half of all visits to the disease endemic areas and have the highest proportion of health problems of all age groups of travelers.”

Why? One theory is that they stay for longer periods of time than other types of travelers, and the lengthier duration of their trip may put them at greater exposure to health hazards.

What about that “healthy base tan?”

A common myth is that having a base tan helps protect skin from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. With this in mind, some people hit the tanning bed in preparation for their trip down south.

According to the experts, getting a tan from a tanning bed does not protect you from the sun. In fact, it may do more harm than the sun itself. Some tanning beds can expose you to five times more radiation than the sun.

The Canadian Cancer Society’s website indicates, “there is no safe way to get a tan.”

The key to protecting yourself from harmful ultraviolet rays is to cover up, wear sunglasses and use sunscreen liberally and often.

The bottom line

Wherever you’re going, make sure you do your research. Jewett suggests seeking out travel health advice, getting travel insurance, preparing a medical kit and packing some essentials. A visit to a travel clinic can help you prepare for the unexpected, and ensure that the only souvenirs you bring home are those you intended to pick up.

The International Travel Clinic located in the Burnside Industrial Park in Dartmouth is open Monday to Friday, by appointment, generally from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Clinic staff are more than happy to make exceptions to fit their client’s schedules. To book an appointment with the travel clinic, call (902) 481-5900.

Marlee Lovell, 16, receives her second hepatitis A vaccine from Julia Jewett, public health nurse with the International Travel