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Managing travel health risks: It's more than vaccines

Zika. Cholera. Bird flu. Malaria. Good old travelers diarrhea.  There’s no shortage of illnesses facing global travelers. And then there are injuries — vehicle accidents, trip and fall and an assortment of other ways to get hurt. Beyond endemic illnesses, traveling itself can exacerbate medical issues:  long flights, jet lag, altitude, unfamiliar or limited medical infrastructure in many locations, etc. All of these factors can hamper medical treatment and recovery, even from what might start as relatively minor conditions.

Like most global risks, health and medical challenges can be managed — but not eliminated. The core risk management principles of awareness, mitigation and response are just as important for health risks as they are for the headline grabbing terrorism, conflict, civil unrest, and natural disasters. By some estimates 50% of global travelers to the developing world experience some sort of medical issue or illness away from home, so you’re far more likely to experience illness than a terrorist attack.  Be prepared:

  • Understand the risks — and not just the required vaccinations. Medical assistance companies like ISOS, UHC Global, AIG Travel Guard & others offer destination specific health risk info on their websites and via smartphone apps.  The US Centers for Disease Control  has traveler specific info on their website, too. For travel to more austere environments or for travelers with medical conditions, visit a travel healthcare professional to help understand how medical risks in your destination may impact you and your underlying health. ??
  • Review insurance to understand limits of coverage and how bills are paid.  Direct billing of insurance may be an option in some locations, while in others travelers will need to pay bills and seek reimbursement from the responsible insurance company. Hopefully not something that needs to be said here, but I’ll say it anyway:  make sure medical evacuation is included.
  • Bring a first aid kit tailored to the risk environment including over the counter meds and a sufficient supply of prescription medication.
  • Practice healthy eating and travel hygiene. Washing hands before eating, staying hydrated with bottled water, etc are all basic but effective ways to help stave off illness while traveling.
  • Identify medical resources at destination(s) in advance to help speed treatment in the event of an urgent issue or emergency. Medical assistance/evacuation providers are a key source of this info. US Embassy websites may have some info as well.
  • Treat conditions early — seeking care is easier at 2pm on a Thursday vs 2AM on a Saturday. Being honest about how you feel is critical; if you’re ill, don’t “tough it out” or convince yourself that your condition will “get better on it’s own.” Invariably some medical issues have a sudden onset, but many deteriorate over time. Waiting until condition becomes an emergency is likely to only complicate and delay treatment and recovery.
  • Understand how medical assistance services work and get them involved early in any medical issue to give time for effective analysis and guidance.

The role of a medical assistance provider is crucial, from pre-trip information on risk and medical facilities to guidance on minor illness to coordination of emergency response and evacuation. All too often, organizations and travelers alike focus on the evacuation part of the service offered by these firms. Doing so risks missing the trove of information available to help identify risks and local resources before illness strikes or an accident occurs.

And remember that cool souvenirs may not be the only thing you bring home from your trip. Zika, malaria and a host of other travel-related illnesses can take days and even weeks to develop, so watch your health after a trip as well as when you’re traveling.

Being ill or injured while traveling isn’t something anyone wants to experience. And while advance planning can’t prevent you from experiencing a bout of GI distress in Abuja, it can help you more effectively manage the situation — get treatment to stabilize the condition and speed recovery.  Travel safe and travel well.