The Good, The Bad and the Bugly – Staying Healthy While Abroad
Modern, first-world countries have made a hefty effort in the past century to thwart some of nature’s most evil of villains. We get our required booster shots and immunizations as children, making us as safe as can be from a variety of microscopic menaces. The worst we deal with in childhood is the chicken pox (treated by placing yourself in a tub of pink calamine lotion), and in adulthood it would be the flu (treated with painkillers and a week of sleep).
Yes, we have our fatalities here and there, but you have to admit, we have it pretty good. If you are heading to less sanitation-obsessed countries, feel free to throw this comfort out the window. Always remember that your health should be your number one priority, so here are some of the baddies that lurk out there, and where they lurk…
If you are heading to Southeast Asia, South Asia or Africa this is something to be acutely aware of. There is a vaccine for this, but its effectiveness has been widely disputed and is unpromising against new strains, and you will be checked to make sure you are even eligible for it. Really, the best thing you can do is wear a surgical grade mask when in crowded areas. The likelihood of being exposed to TB is very high, but the likelihood of having an active TB infection is very low. If you suspect you have the symptoms of TB, get to a doctor as soon as possible. Catching it early helps and it can be treated, but the treatment can be brutal and lengthy. You could very well end up with LTBI (latent infection), which will cause your hand to swell up with a pin-prick test and your chest to light up like a Christmas tree in an x-ray. LTBI is nothing to panic about (if you’re still young) since you can get rid of the bug in this form with an extensive round of antibiotics.
Go get your tetanus shot! Tetanus shots make you immune from the infection for 10 years (but let’s say 8 to be on the safe side). No matter where you are going, it’s very wise to have. Tetanus infections are, however, especially common in Central and South America. Tetanus is caused by bacteria that tend to thrive in rust – but can be found elsewhere. It must come in direct contact with an open wound (such as the very cliché act of stepping on a rusty nail) in order to get into your system. It causes your entire muscular-skeletal system to shut down over time, causing spasms and rigidity and even death via untimely rigor mortis. It’s worth the shot.
Malaria is responsible for more deaths than any other form of life (including us humans) in the history of mankind. It is the most vicious parasite known to man and it wears many masks, all with different attack modes and symptoms. So, if you are in Africa or the Amazon – get checked as soon as you start feeling off. There is no vaccine or medical form of prevention for malaria (because it is a parasite), and only some forms have treatment available – and said treatments can be grueling. Mosquito nets tucked in tight are the best way to keep you safe. While we’re on the topic of mosquito-born parasites, don’t overlook Japanese Encephalitis if you’re heading to Asia. It is similar – easy to get and easy to die from – and just as easy to avoid. Likewise, if you are heading to Central/South America, mosquitoes are just as evil there carrying severe viruses such as Dengue Fever and Yellow Fever. Catch any one of these from a mosquito, and you’ll wish DDT was still in use.
Tapeworms are notoriously difficult to get rid of and they can kill you if left untreated. They even have teeth to latch onto your insides and surgery is usually required to rid yourself of them since if you do not remove the head or any eggs it leaves, you’ve wasted your time. These suckers can get so long they pop out your orifices (gross, I know). Most of the time, they do not cause symptoms but usually you’ll have the expected intestinal issues. Sometimes, though, they leave your intestinal system and head elsewhere, and that is when your health will take a very, very nasty turn for the worse. Like most parasitic worms, these guys hang out in bad water, and can survive high temperatures so they can also end up in cooked food as a result.
The Plague (Dun dun dun…)
What, you really think we got around to eradicating this in the hundreds of years since it nearly wiped us out? Nah… It’s still out there! The main sign of infection are buboes (painful and very noticeable swelling of your lymph glands) which can occur in different parts of your body. You know how the song goes – ring around the rosie! Anyway, if you’re heading to rural and unkempt areas anywhere, try to avoid places with a lot of animals lingering about. Sounds silly but there have been a good number of modern cases of the plague ranging from Africa to the Middle East, China to Vietnam, Brazil to Peru, Russia and even the United States. Remember, it’s not really rats you need to worry about – it’s fleas.
Don’t fret – its easy enough to take measures to avoid bad bugs and infections. A very good thing to know is that prescription medications are cheap and usually available over the counter in countries with not-so-strict regulations. Where outbreaks are common, so is WHO (World Health Organization), and they are regularly geared to help. The best preventive measure you can take is to research where you are heading and see a doctor who is familiar with travel medicine.
Remember to be smart, and always listen to your body. It’s okay to be a hypochondriac sometimes! Whether you are sampling local cuisine, swimming in a local lake, going on a safari camping trip, eating dirt… whatever – just take care. Ever have those moments where you stop and think “am I going to regret this later?” when you stare down something delicious looking? Linger on that thought if you’re skipping through the open markets of Thailand or checking out a local beach-front pub in Mexico. Conch fritters may be the most delicious thing ever pulled from the sea and put in a deep fryer… but they could also be your worst enemy.
This post was written by Kaye McDaniel.