Some years ago, a young travel writer who was about to take his first overseas trip – to West Africa – got these five words of advice from an older, more experienced colleague: “Brush your teeth with beer.” Why? Because travelers to certain parts of the world face a significant risk of debilitating water-borne disease if they don’t take some simple precautions.
That advice about the questionable contents of water systems in less-developed nations, even in hotels, still holds for many of the world’s exotic destinations. A new report from medical travel insurance provider GetGoing summarizes which countries pose the greatest threat of illness to travelers, how diseases are most commonly transmitted, and how to protect yourself if you go there.
The report highlights five countries that it calls “the riskiest nations across the globe” for traveler illness:
>India, well known in tourist circles for traveler’s diarrhea, a.k.a. “Delhi belly.” But the country also carries the risk of developing typhoid and hepatitis A “due to poor sanitation,” the company said. (I traveled to Mumbai, Hyderabad, Delhi and Agra, took normal precautions, and never took a hit in the gut, thankfully.)
>Kenya, popular among affluent travelers for the chance to see herds of African wildlife, also carries the risk of contracting five various ailments: traveler’s diarrhea, hepatitis A, malaria, typhoid and dengue, the company said.
>Thailand, one of the most renowned vacation destinations in Asia, presents a very high risk of traveler’s diarrhea, GetGoing said. (I’ve never had a problem during several trips to Bangkok over the years, so I’m guessing the problem might be greater in the countryside and at beaches.)
>Peru, the home of the often-photographed Machu Picchu ruins in the Andes, is “the riskiest of all of South America and is a hotbed for diseases such as dengue and typhoid,” the company reported.
>Indonesia, which poses a significant risk of hepatitis A, GetGoing said.
The other countries making the riskiest list include: Mexico, Dominican Republic, South Africa, Costa Rica, Cuba, Egypt and Sri Lanka.
How do travelers come down with these illnesses? The report cites three major sources of disease for travelers.
The biggest risk comes from the things you ingest. It’s nice to try out new kinds of exotic cuisines on your trip, but local food is “one of the main sources of illnesses” like traveler’s diarrhea, the company advised – something that afflicts 20 to 40 percent of travelers. Is it undercooked? Has it been sitting out in the sun during the hotel’s patio buffet service? Have vegetables been washed – and if so, with what kind of water?
Speaking of water, it goes without saying that you should avoid tap water – even in hotels – and only drink beverages that come in sealed containers, like bottled water, beer or wine. When you sit down at the bar during cocktail time, don’t order anything on the rocks, because that ice is probably made of water from the local pipes– or water stored in dicey rooftop water tanks. Freezing the water into ice preserves the bacteria, it does not kill them, according to the report.
Going out for an expedition in the jungle or a walk along the river? “The World Health Organization estimates that the mosquito is the deadliest animal alive,” GetGoing said, killing a million people every year. So consult maps that show danger zones for malaria and dengue and take precautions.
GetGoing also advises seeing your doctor before departure to make sure you have all the necessary and recommended vaccinations, and taking along insect repellents that include DEET, to be sprayed in your room and/or on your exposed skin when you go outdoors. And take along hand sanitizer, because many things you touch at the destination could be covered with germs – like the local money, which is passed from person to person many times. If you are not sure what risks await in countries where you are going, ask your doctor– for example, in San Francisco, Kaiser Permanente offers the services of a “travel nurse.”
In my travel bag, I always stock an anti-diarrheal medication like Lomotil and Pepto-Bismol tabs for stomach aches.
And remember, not all travel ailments are communicable diseases. One of the most common problems for travelers is altitude sickness, which can actually kill some people at very high locations in mountainous countries. And there’s a risk you might not think of when you go for a swim in the ocean: jellyfish stings, which are common worldwide and produce stinging, burning, welts and “intense pain,” the company warned. After an encounter like that, you’d likely rather drink the beer than brush your teeth with it.
You can click here to find a graphic summary of GetGoing’s findings and advice.
What’s the scariest or most painful bug you’ve picked up on overseas trips? How do you avoid getting sick overseas? Tell us about it in the comments.
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Chris McGinnis is the founder of TravelSkills.com. The author is solely responsible for the content above, and it is used here by permission. You can reach Chris at email@example.com or on Twitter @cjmcginnis.