Pharmacist, Bright’s Grove Family Pharmacy
Dr. Aisha Khatib
Clinical Director, Travel Medicine, Medcan & Chair, Responsible Travel Interest Group for the International Society of Travel Medicine
As Canadians return to international travel, COVID-19 isn’t the only infectious disease they should be thinking about when planning their trip.
According to Statistics Canada, the number of Canadian residents returning from visiting abroad was 7.9 million in 2021. While well below pre-pandemic numbers, this is a sign that international travel is on the minds of many Canadians. In fact, a recent survey from Expedia reported that about two thirds of Canadians are planning a “no regrets” trip for 2022.
Travel-related health risks are also on the minds of Canadians planning a trip abroad. “I think COVID-19 has created an awareness of how quickly diseases can travel and how important it is to be not only properly vaccinated but also properly educated before we go somewhere,” says Kelly Haggerty, a pharmacist at Bright’s Grove Family Pharmacy in Brights Grove, Ont.
Beyond COVID-19, there are many other infectious diseases not typically found in Canada to be aware of. A couple of years ago, for example, several southern destinations reported infections of Zika virus and chikungunya and, more recently, an outbreak of Japanese encephalitis (JE) has been reported in certain regions of Australia.
The importance of pre-departure consultation
A comprehensive consultation with a travel health care provider can help ensure a safe and healthy trip. “In addition to walking you through which vaccines and medications you’ll need, these individuals can advise on the risks associated with the destination you’re going to, whether these be political, climate change-related, or anything else,” says Dr. Aisha Khatib, Clinical Director of Travel Medicine at Medcan and Chair of the Responsible Travel Interest Group for the International Society of Travel Medicine. The ideal time to meet with your travel health care provider is six to eight weeks before departure to allow ample time to complete any necessary vaccine schedules or get medication.
I think COVID-19 has created an awareness of how quickly diseases can travel and how important it is to be not only properly vaccinated but also properly educated before we go somewhere.
What to consider when planning your trip
The vaccines you’ll need depend on your destination and the types of activities you’ll be engaged in. Make sure you’re up to date with your routine immunizations. Travel vaccines to consider may include hepatitis A and B, typhoid, JE, and yellow fever. Less obvious but no less significant is rabies — a viral infection spread through the bite or scratch of an infected animal.
While rare in Canada thanks to our vaccination programs for domestic animals, rabies can be a serious risk in other countries where vaccination isn’t so common. “It’s really important to talk about this one because it has a 100 percent case fatality rate,” says Dr. Khatib. “If you get bitten or scratched by an infected animal and you’re not vaccinated, you have a 10-day window to acquire immunoglobulin treatment, which is currently in short supply around the world. The good news is that if you’ve had the pre-exposure series of rabies vaccines, you’re protected for life.”
Mosquito-borne illnesses, such as malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya, and Zika virus, are other serious disease risks in certain countries, as is the rare but potentially fatal JE. Vaccination may be recommended for JE, especially for those frequently travelling to South Asian countries such as China, Thailand, Taiwan, and India, where there are high populations of JE-carrying mosquitoes. Travellers can additionally protect themselves from mosquito diseases by planning activities for low-risk exposure times, wearing long-sleeved clothing, and using insect repellent.
Food and water-borne diseases can be debilitating and ruin a trip. Diarrhea during travel can affect about 50 percent of travellers. “You could be staying in a five-star resort, but if somebody hasn’t washed their hands or you eat something that’s contaminated, you can still get travellers’ diarrhea,” says Dr. Khatib.
Enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli (E.coli), or ETEC, is one of the most common pathogens causing diarrhea in many areas of the world. Aside from applying the “boil, cook, and peel” mantra to food and water consumption, travellers may want to consider a preventive oral vaccine to help reduce the risk of a particular strain of bacteria producing a heat-sensitive toxin called LT-producing ETEC, especially if they have sensitive or compromised digestive systems.
Keep safe by understanding risks and being prepared
Other considerations for your trip include having emergency contact information and a travel first aid kit tailored to your destination. “Access to different types of medication or finding help may be difficult once you’re there, so it’s important to have these with you and your travel health care provider can help with that,” says Dr. Khatib.
Finally, if you feel sick after you return, especially if you have a fever, you should seek immediate medical attention. “Follow up with your travel health provider or go to the emergency room to make sure you haven’t picked up something that’s potentially serious or life-threatening,” says Dr. Khatib.
While no travel is completely risk-free, you can help keep yourself and the communities you’re visiting safe by understanding the risks and being prepared.
This story was created by Mediaplanet on behalf of a Canadian biopharmaceutical company.