Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Health concerns never take a holiday

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So, you've decided to leave the snow and cold behind and spend a couple of weeks soaking up the tropical sun somewhere. Now what?

Well, in addition to booking your airline tickets and hotel reservations, it is probably a very good idea to think about your travel health needs.

That's especially true if you are heading to countries in the Caribbean or Central and South America. But even quick jaunts to southern parts of the United States and Mexico can pose health risks if you are not prepared.

Each year in Manitoba, travellers come down with a range of illnesses, including traveller's diarrhea, dengue fever and malaria. Some of these conditions can be treated, but others can pose more serious health risks.

As a result, it is important to take protective measures. Travellers to the United States, for example, should at minimum make sure they are up to date on all the basic shots. That would include influenza, pneumonia, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps and rubella vaccines.

Those who are travelling farther south, say Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica or Panama, need to be aware of other potential threats. These include:

Hepatitis A: A viral infection that attacks the liver, hepatitis A can be contracted by people visiting Mexico and Central America (and most other developing countries). Fever, fatigue, abdominal pain and dark urine are just a few of the symptoms. It is usually contracted by drinking untreated water or eating improperly prepared food. Ice made of tap water can also pose a risk for hepatitis A in some countries. And it can also be transmitted through sexual contact. Vaccination is available and provides very good protection for most travellers.

Hepatitis B: Usually transmitted through sexual contact, hepatitis B can also be spread through blood, with the use of non-sterile equipment found in spas, tattoo or body-piercing parlours, dental and health-care settings. It also attacks the liver and is linked to chronic liver disease, cirrhosis and liver cancer. Vaccination is available and is very effective once the series has been completed.

And, of course, there are the various mosquito-borne illnesses, including dengue fever, malaria and yellow fever, which can be found in parts of the Caribbean, Central and South America. There is no vaccine for dengue fever or malaria, either of which can be fatal, so it is important to take precautions against mosquito bites. You can, however, also receive a prescription for pills to prevent symptoms of malaria and there is a vaccine for yellow fever. The yellow fever vaccine is very close to being 100 per cent effective in most travellers.

Perhaps the most common ailment is traveller's diarrhea. About 20 per cent to 50 per cent of international tourists get traveller's diarrhea. High-risk destinations include low-income countries in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Generally speaking, travellers become sick by consuming contaminated food or water that has not been properly treated. Even just brushing your teeth with untreated tap water could make you sick. The cause of the infection can be a virus, parasite or bacteria. Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria are often a cause of traveller's diarrhea. E. coli bacteria are normally found in the human intestine.

Diarrhea can leave you dehydrated, causing your body to lose more fluids and salts than it takes in. This can be serious, so it is very important to try to prevent it. Here are a few tips:

-- Do not drink untreated water, including ice cubes in drinks.

-- Drink bottled water, where the seal has not been broken and use bottled water to brush your teeth.

-- Avoid food and beverages from street vendors.

-- Eat only foods that are cooked and still hot, or fruits and vegetables that you peel yourself.

-- Avoid uncooked dairy products.

If you are planning a trip south, the best thing to do is call your doctor or Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA) Travel Health & Tropical Medicine Services, located at 490 Hargrave St. Travel-health staff can provide a complete travel-health risk assessment and can provide all required, recommended and routine immunizations. For more information, please call 940-TRIP (8747) or visit the WRHA website at


Jacquie Shackel is a co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's Travel Health & Tropical Medicine Services.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 6, 2013 A23

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