Whether you are starting a job overseas, taking a package safari to Africa, volunteering in South America or backpacking through Europe, it is important that you inform yourself of the health and safety risks of international travel.
No one likes to think that something bad will happen during his or her perfectly planned trip abroad. But the truth is that accidents and illnesses do happen. No one keeps official statistics on the number of American tourists killed or injured while traveling abroad, but, according to the U.S. State Department, an average of 6,000 private American citizens die overseas every year. Many more are involved in traffic accidents or minor illnesses that cut their holidays short. Often these incidents could have been prevented with proper planning and information about health and safety risks in the destination country. A higher proportion of accidents and illnesses do occur in destinations off the beaten path, but that does not mean you should avoid travel to those areas. Rather, the more informed you are, the more adventurous you can be, because you will know what to avoid and how to get help if you need it.
Below are some things to keep in mind:
Know the health risks in the area of your travel or overseas employment. Malaria, yellow fever, cholera, the plague, typhoid fever—you may have read about these diseases in your high school history books, but the truth is that they are still prevalent in certain areas of the world. Without the proper vaccinations, you may put yourself at risk of contracting these diseases, if you are permitted to enter the country at all. The Center for Disease Control, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, can provide you with current information on the health risks for the region of the world to which you are traveling. Their web site (http://www.cdc.gov) contains general information about preventing and treating travel illness (including the all-too-familiar traveler’s diarrhea) and specific information about influenza and disease outbreaks. The web site also contains health information reports for specific geographic areas, including current information on required immunizations and vaccines, health precautions, disease outbreaks, etc.
Verify your insurance coverage. What will you do if, despite your best precautions, you become sick or injured abroad? Not all U.S. insurance companies will cover you while you are traveling overseas. Many limit the amount of coverage or will not cover you while you are engaged in adventure travel (whitewater rafting, skydiving, etc.). Emergency evacuation or long-term hospital stays can cost thousands of dollars. Check with your insurance company to verify coverage and purchase additional insurance coverage, if necessary. There are several insurance companies that specialize in overseas travel insurance and many permit you to buy coverage for as short as a month.
Visit your doctor. You may be required to have vaccinations in order to obtain a visa to certain countries. While you are visiting your doctor, it is a good idea to have a complete physical, particularly if you are planning to do a lot of outdoor activities or have had health problems in the past. You should request refills of any prescription medicine you are taking—enough to last your entire trip. Make sure your medications are well labeled and in their original containers, to avoid any problems with customs officials. If you are taking any medication containing narcotics, you should also bring a doctor’s note (translated, if necessary) attesting to your need to take the medication. If you have any particular medical problems (allergies, diabetes, etc.), you may want to get a medical identification bracelet that communicates your medical situation.
Visit your dentist. The last thing you want to have to deal with is a toothache or impacted wisdom teeth abroad. Have any dental work you may need done before you go.
Inform yourself of local medical facilities. In addition to knowing what vaccines are required and how to keep healthy abroad, it is also important to know what to do and where to go if you should get sick abroad. The local U.S. Consular Office can usually recommend local English-speaking doctors, so take those numbers with you. You may also want to take with you a list of travel clinics, English-speaking doctors and know the emergency medical numbers, if they exist, in your destination country. Several international travel health organizations exist, and you can locate clinics on their web site before you go. Both the International Society of Travel Medicine and the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene provide a list of English-speaking doctors and travel clinics worldwide on their web sites. Highway to Health (http://www.highwaytohealth.com) also lists emergency numbers, local hospitals and pharmacies on its web site.
Bring a medical kit. A basic medical kit containing bandages, aspirin, antiseptic cleaner, insect repellent, anti-diarrhea medicine, malaria tablets (if necessary) may be useful when traveling off the beaten path.
Bring condoms. Sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS are everywhere. If you are sexually active, or are planning to become sexually active, bring your own protection.
Be aware of jet lag. Extreme jet lag can wipe you out for the first few days of your sojourn abroad. To reduce the effect of jet lag, do the following: eat lightly, drink lots of water and avoid caffeine and alcohol for a few days before your flight; try to sleep on your flight; and, upon arrival, stay active and go to bed when the locals do. This will help your body adjust its internal clock to local time.
“Boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it.” As much as you may want to try all the local delicacies, go slow at first until your stomach is able to adjust to new foods. If you are unsure, drink bottled water or carbonated beverages (without ice), avoid raw seafood, eggs, meat and un-peeled vegetables and only eat dairy products that have been pasteurized and refrigerated. If you have food restrictions, for health, religious or personal reasons, learn how to communicate that in the local language before you go.
Know the political situation in your destination country before you travel to an overseas job or contracting assignment. Your first stop on the Internet should be to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs (http://travel.state.gov), the government division responsible for assisting Americans abroad. The U.S. State Department (and its equivalents in other countries) releases “Consular Information Sheets” on every country in the world. These sheets describe the tourist visa requirements, quality of medical facilities, political situation, embassy locations and other information valuable for travelers. The State Department also issues “Travel Warnings” for political problems, national disasters or other activity that may affect Americans in particular areas.
Know the public transportation quality of your overseas job or travel destination.The number one cause of American deaths and serious injuries abroad is transportation accidents. The Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), founded by the parents of a student killed in a car accident in Turkey in 1995, provides free reports on road conditions worldwide and recommendations on safe car rental and public transportation travel on their web site (http://www.asirt.org). These reports are gathered from a variety of sources: the United Nations, International Road Federation, newspapers and locals. They contain general tips on travel safety, as well as specific information on road conditions, traffic regulations, English translations of road signs, bus and taxi company accident records and a list of recent major accidents in the country.
Know whom to call and where to go in case of emergency. Should there be an accident or health emergency abroad, the U.S. State Department has several emergency numbers to call. Again, if you are going to be in one location for an extended period of time, you should register with the local consular office so the government can locate and assist you in case of emergency.
Use common travel sense. The same rules apply for overseas employment and travel as they do for domestic:
Try to blend in. Dress conservatively and as much like the locals as appropriate. Travel in small groups and speak the local language as much as possible.
Let people know where you are going to be. Leave your travel itinerary with friends or family, and check in with the local American embassy if you are going to be in one location for a week or longer.
Take care of your belongings. Leave anything valuable at home! Do not carry or display large amounts of cash, and carry your money, passport and tickets in a neck or waist pouch under your clothes. The vast majority of travelers encounter few, if any, problems abroad. But don’t let yourself be the exception. The little time you spend researching your destination now could not only save you time and trouble abroad—it could save your life.