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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."

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