World Travelers Wave Off Health Risks

Many International Travelers Fail to Research Infectious Diseases, Get Recommended Vaccinations, Study Finds

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 05, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 5, 2010 -- Many people who travel around the world, especially those who go to poor and lower-income countries, risk contracting or spreading infectious diseases because they fail to research potential health issues at their destinations, a new study says.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital conducted a survey of 1,254 people leaving Boston’s Logan International Airport and found that 46% of people going to low or low-middle income countries failed to investigate potential infectious diseases or get recommended vaccinations for countries they were visiting.

Overseas Travelers May Be Unaware of Diseases at Destinations

This is not good news for public health, the researchers say, because global mobility is known to contribute to the spread of infectious diseases such as flu, measles, and meningitis.

What’s more, many travelers aren’t aware that they could pick up and transmit infectious diseases to others, thus spreading malaria, typhoid, dengue fever, hepatitis, and other illnesses.

The survey findings suggest that public health officials need to develop better and more efficient ways to educate travelers about potential risks.

Of the people surveyed, 38% were traveling to countries described by the World Bank’s World Development Report as low and low-middle income nations, the study says.

Travelers Should Check Global Health Information on Internet

People who were less likely to seek pre-travel health advice were foreign-born travelers, including people heading out to visit family and friends, and people flying alone or going on vacation, the researchers say. The most common reason given for not obtaining health information was a lack of concern about potential health issues.

According to the survey, 54% of travelers going to resource-limited countries said they did investigate health information, most often by searching the Internet or by talking with doctors and other public health workers.

“These results suggest that the Internet and [primary care practitioners] are two promising avenues for disseminating information about traveling safely,” study author Regina C. LaRocque, MD, MPH, of the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Division of Infectious Diseases, says in a news release. “Offering online resources at the time of ticket purchase or through popular travel web sites would likely reach a large audience of people in need of health advice.”

The researchers cite the 2002-2003 global spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, as an example of how diseases can be spread by global travelers.

Diseases Contracted Abroad Can Spell Trouble for U.S.

More recently, dengue fever, a tropical disease found mainly in Asia, Latin America, and in the Caribbean, has been reported in the southern part of the United States, the researchers say.

And in India, an epidemic of a viral infection called chikungunya was spread to Italy by travelers. The infection is characterized by fever, headache, weakness, and joint pain.

“International travel is the primary way many infections traverse the world,” says Edward Ryan, MD, a senior investigator of the study who is director of MGH’s Tropical and Geographic Medicine Center. “What many people don’t realize is that, without seeking the correct health information, they are putting themselves at increased risk of infection as well as creating a public health risk in their home communities after they return.”

One web site travelers might consider is the Travelers' Health web site operated by the CDC.

The study is published in the Journal of Travel Medicine.

Show Sources


News release, Massachusetts General Hospital.

LaRocque, R. Journal of Travel Medicine, 2010.

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