Take precautions before travelling abroad

Dr. David Butler-Jones MD Traveling abroad provides us with a greater understanding of global
cultures and an opportunity to escape the cold Canadian winters.

It can be a great experience for families; however, there are some simple precautions we should all take before we travel to some destinations.

Before boarding your next flight, it's important to be aware of potential risks and of the measures you can take before, during and after your trip to better protect yourself and your family.

Before you go
Research the standards of safety, hygiene and medical care at your destination, as these can vary widely from place to place and will affect the type of travel health advice you need.

It's important to discuss your travel plans with your doctor or travel clinic at least six weeks before you leave. They will consider your needs and help you stay healthy by providing immunizations against illnesses like hepatitis, typhoid, meningitis and yellow fever.

Depending on where you're going, you might also be advised to take some preventative medicine against malaria, which is even a problem in some parts of the Caribbean, and gastrointestinal illnesses.

If you're traveling with a pre-existing medical condition, bring along a letter from your doctor with information about your condition, as well as a current prescription for any required
medications. Be sure to take enough medication with for at least an extra week, just in case travel plans change.

Traveling with infants and children can be especially rewarding, but also tricky. Children are at a greater risk of certain health hazards and may develop faster and more severe symptoms if they do become sick. Certain travel vaccines and medications may not be suitable depending on their age and infants may need an accelerated immunization schedule, so remember to get medical advice early. It is recommended that you bring baby formula and medication from home, as well as your child's vaccination records.

You may also want to invest in additional travel health insurance, beyond what is provided by your province or employer. A medical evacuation could cost you more than $50,000 so it's important to understand how well you're covered and what else you might need.

While you travel
Unlike at home in Canada, when we're abroad we can't always assume the tap water is safe. What's more, some foods are easily contaminated and tend to put us at even greater risk of Montezuma's revenge than the water. Some diseases, such as hepatitis A and typhoid fever, come from eating or drinking contaminated food or water as well, and some can also be spread
through skin contact in rivers or lakes or through public bathing facilities like water parks.

Some tips to protect you from contaminated food or water:

- Boil, cook or peel all fruits and vegetables
- Always wash your hands before eating or drinking
- Ensure food is well-cooked and served hot
- Avoid uncooked meals such as salad or shellfish
- Drink only purified water boiled or disinfected with iodine or chlorine
or commercially-bottled water in sealed containers
- Avoid ice, unless it's made with purified water
- Avoid unpasteurized dairy products and ice cream
- Avoid food from street vendors
- Avoid swimming in contaminated or polluted water
- Brush your teeth with bottled or purified water

Travellers should also protect themselves from insect- and tick-borne infections, such as malaria and Lyme disease, by using insect repellent, covering exposed skin, staying in well-screened or enclosed rooms and by regularly checking body, clothing and sleeping areas for insects.

Injury prevention should also be top-of-mind for travellers.

Traffic accidents are actually the most common cause of death among travellers under 50. Understanding local traffic laws, culture and road systems, as well as double-checking the safety of any rented vehicles including cars, scooters and ATVs, are all important factors in personal safety.

When doing water sports, vacationers should heed warnings about dangerous waters and use properly fitted and certified life jackets for children. When snorkelling, watch out for jellyfish, biting and stinging fish and coral.

When you return
More people traveling means a higher risk of imported diseases in Canada.

If you or someone close to you becomes ill with a disease that could be given to others, you must tell the customs officer or a quarantine officer when you return to Canada so that they can determine the risk to others.

If you become ill after you return, seek medical advice and tell them right away about your travel.

A little preparation and knowledge goes a long way in protecting you against many common and preventable travel-related incidents.

The Government of Canada recently published Well on Your Way, providing practical advice for healthy travel abroad. To download or order copies of the guide, or for more information on public health and travel health risks, please visit www.travelhealth.gc.ca

Dr. David Butler-Jones is Canada's first Chief Public Health Officer and is head of the Public Health Agency of Canada.