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Many Travelers Risk Their Health Abroad


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May 23, 2002 -- Despite the notoriety of infamous vacation wreckers like Montezuma's revenge, many travelers still are not taking the proper precautions to protect their health from potentially deadly threats when traveling abroad. A new European survey shows 60% of travelers bound for high-risk destinations are not adequately protected against one of the most common travel-related diseases, hepatitis A.

The survey, presented in Florence, Italy, at the 3rd European Conference on Travel Medicine, polled more than 600 travelers departing from three major European airports who were destined for Africa, Asia, or Latin America. According to the World Health Organization, these regions are known to have high rates of hepatitis A infection and pose a risk to foreign travelers.

Researchers found that 40% of the travelers surveyed did not seek any medical advice before making a trip abroad, and most planned on participating in activities that could increase their risk of contracting a variety of infectious diseases (including hepatitis A), such as swimming or consuming drinks with ice cubes.

About 1.5 million people worldwide are affected by hepatitis A each year. Hepatitis A is a liver infection caused by a virus of the same name. The disease is usually acquired by ingesting food or water that has been contaminated by infected feces. The virus can also be transmitted through sexual contact or blood transfusions.

Symptoms of hepatitis A include fever, jaundice (yellowish color in skin and eyes), fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. In extreme cases, the disease can cause liver failure and lead to hospitalization or even death.

Based on a mathematical model, researchers estimate that if all at-risk travelers were vaccinated against hepatitis A, 8,217 cases of symptomatic hepatitis A and 51 deaths could be prevented.

Those findings prompted the European Travel Health and Advisory Board (ETHAB) to urge medical professionals to take a more active role in protecting travelers.

"It is clear that we need to do more to protect travelers against hepatitis A which is, after all, the most common vaccine-preventable travel-related disease," says Jane Zuckerman, chairwoman of ETHAB, in a news release. "We should consider not only the impact on the individual, but also the increasing public health problem presented by imported hepatitis A leading to localised outbreaks of the disease."

Researchers say based on disease severity, prevalence, and treatment efficiency, top priority should be given to making sure travelers are vaccinated against hepatitis A and B. If possible, travelers should also receive protection against typhoid, tetanus, diphtheria, measles, and polio.

Aside from seeking medical advice before travel, you can reduce your risk of travel-related illness by following a few simple rules:

  • Don't drink the water. Stick to bottled water from a reliable source. In some countries, bottled water is straight from the tap, so carbonated commercial waters are a safer bet.
  • Skip the ice in all beverages, including margaritas and other alcoholic drinks.
  • Don't eat raw fruits or vegetables that have been washed in the local water, especially salads. Stick to fruits you can peel yourself.
  • Eat it while it's hot. Contamination occurs when contaminated persons touch your food. Choose hot dishes that are too hot to be touched by humans.
  • Avoid shellfish. Those caught in sewage-contaminated waters can transmit disease.

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