Dr. Vivien Brown
Family Physician, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto, & Chair of the Task Force on the Crisis in HPV Vaccination in School System, Federation of Medical Women of Canada
Pharmacist, Polaris Travel Clinic
Canadians are eager to travel abroad again. But before booking that trip, have a plan to protect yourself against infectious diseases.
As travel restrictions ease, Canadians are busy making plans. But before you take off for that tropical destination, a yoga retreat in India, or a European backpacking trip, it’s important to be aware of the travel health risks — especially the risks of infectious diseases. The last thing you want is to have your vacation ruined by an avoidable gastric bug or a potentially life-threatening illness.
Be aware of the risks and plan accordingly
Fortunately, proper planning and preparation before departure under the guidance of a health-care professional can help you prevent getting sick while travelling. Aside from advising you on appropriate COVID-19 precautions to take, your health-care provider can inform you about the infectious disease risks at your travel destination. “The most likely thing people tend to encounter is usually some kind of gastrointestinal problem like travellers’ diarrhea,” says Jason Kmet, Pharmacist at Polaris Travel Clinic in Airdrie, Alta. But there are other, less obvious risks to be aware of, like dengue fever, malaria, and hepatitis A, as well as rabies and Japanese encephalitis, a mosquito-born illness found in some Asian countries.
In addition to the destination, you should consider the activities you’re planning to do, as these will affect the precautions you need to take. For example, spending most of your time at a five-star resort tends to come with less risk of exposure to infectious diseases than going off-road and eating among the locals, but even there, you should be cautious. “It’s not enough to avoid drinking tap water. You also want to avoid things like ice cubes in your drink, brushing your teeth with tap water, and eating raw fruits and vegetables,” says Dr. Vivien Brown, a family doctor, and Assistant Professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto.
Vaccines have preventive benefits against infectious diseases
Travel vaccines can be effective in managing the risks of infectious diseases. “We have a number of different vaccinations with preventive benefits against these diseases that are well tolerated and with minimal downsides,” says Kmet.
One of these is an oral vaccine that can help to protect against one of the most common causes of diarrhea during travel. “An oral immunization like Dukoral® is very easy to do and doesn’t require a prescription. You take it about two weeks before you leave, and it can decrease your risk by more than 50 per cent,” says Dr. Brown.
If you’re planning to visit an Asian country and take part in outdoor activities that put you in contact with mosquitoes, you might want to consider the Japanese encephalitis vaccine. Similarly, if you plan to be exposed to animals on your trip, it’s a good idea to consider a rabies vaccine before you leave, particularly if access to medical care in the visiting country is difficult. “There are treatments you can take after the fact, but they require a series of vaccinations taken on specific days and scrambling around in an emergency figuring out how to do that can negatively affect your trip,” says Dr. Brown.
We have a number of different vaccinations with preventive benefits against these diseases that are well tolerated and with minimal downsides.
Consult a health-care provider prior to travel
Travellers should give themselves ample time before their trip to consult with their health-care provider or travel medicine specialist because some vaccines require several doses over time to be fully immunized. “I’d say the sweet spot is between four to eight weeks, but even if it’s before that, there are still things we can realistically do,” says Kmet.
During that consultation, travellers should also make sure they’re up to date on their routine vaccinations like tetanus. “When we do a basic evaluation, less than 5 per cent of adults are up to date with everything, and of course travel is one of those situations where people come to the doctor to talk about immunization, but what’s interesting is we have a lot of new vaccines coming down the pipelines, so I think we should be having this immune discussion with every patient about general health as well,” says Dr. Brown. It’s always wise to invest in protecting your health before travelling abroad. With knowledge and preparation, you can protect yourself against many common and preventable travel-related illnesses.