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Infectious diseases abroad: What should business travellers know?

By Dr. Lynn Gordon, chief medical officer for global assistance, travel risk and claims management provider CEGA, a Charles Taylor Company

Business travellers may worry about the threat of infectious diseases, new strains of infection, antibiotic resistance and even pandemics overseas.

Recently, dengue fever has been reported in France and Spain; yellow fever in Nigeria; measles in New Zealand; rabies in the USA; Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The list goes on.

Meanwhile, World Health Organisation (WHO) data shows there were an estimated 219 million cases of malaria in 90 countries in 2017, 36.9 million people living with HIV globally and approximately 5-15% of the population in the northern hemisphere affected by seasonal influenza.

WHO defines infectious diseases as those caused by pathogenic microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi.  Many can be spread, directly or indirectly, from one person to another.

WHO sees evidence of an increase in many infectious diseases too, including

some new ones, such as hepatitis C and SARS. And Public Health England says, “With the increased movement of people around the globe and urbanisation, the likelihood of coming into contact with new and emerging diseases has increased.”

Associations between climatic conditions and infectious diseases have also been identified, with malaria likely to be the vector-borne disease most sensitive to long-term climate change.

But, as corporate travellers increasingly embrace global destinations, how can they mitigate the risks of disease? The guidance below briefly explains.

Don’t dismiss travellers’ tummy

Travellers’ diarrhoea is common. Caused by viruses, bacteria or protozoa (tiny organisms that live as parasites), it can become a serious health threat, especially in undeveloped areas with unsophisticated medical care, and it’s vital to take the right precautions against it.  Precautions include washing hands properly, checking that cooked food is piping hot and peeling raw fruit and vegetables yourself. If there’s a possibility that tap water is unsafe to drink, avoid ice in drinks and stick to bottled water, with unbroken seals. Be aware too that hygiene and sanitation standards may vary from country to country.

Get vaccinated

It’s important to be up-to-date with routine vaccinations such as measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, varicella (chickenpox), influenza and polio, before setting off abroad – wherever you go. You should also talk to a health professional about destination-specific vaccinations, at least six weeks before you set off. If you travel at short notice, it’s still worth talking to an expert about how to limit health risks abroad. But bear in mind that not all infectious diseases can be prevented by vaccines. Check the latest news from WHO on disease outbreaks:http://www.who.int/csr/don/en/.  Also bear in mind that signs of disease may not manifest themselves until well after you return home.

Protect yourself

The risk of mosquito-borne diseases – such as malaria (the most common) dengue fever, Zika, Chikungunya and yellow fever can be reduced by insect repellent, bed nets and clothes that cover up arms and legs. Malaria tablets may also be called for (always check with a health specialist). Meanwhile, avoid contact with blood or bodily fluids, such as saliva, vomit, urine and faeces, or with tissues from someone who may have an infectious disease. The same goes for unknown animals. Although 99% of rabies cases are caused by dogs, the disease can also be spread by other animals such as bats, raccoons, foxes and cats, so it’s best to keep your distance.

Bear in mind too that contaminated food and water can transmit several infectious diseases beyond travellers’ tummy; not least cholera, hepatitis A, and typhoid.

Protect others

You can take some simple precautions to avoid spreading disease to others. This includes covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, throwing away used tissues and washing hands with hot water and soap after going to the bathroom or before preparing food. In the absence of soap and water, you can use hand sanitiser. It’s also important to have protected sex, to flush any vomit away in the toilet and to avoid sharing food or drink if you’re not well.

Think about the journey as well as the destination

As we travel more often, and further afield, avoiding disease involves anticipating and managing health risks associated not just with our destinations, but also with our journeys. A quick stop-off in South America, for instance, could expose a traveller to a risk (such as malaria) that may not be prevalent at his or her journey’s end. Make sure you get the right professional advice about all the risks you may be exposed to.

Make sure you have the right travel insurance – before you go

If you become ill overseas and are covered by travel insurance, your insurers won’t just pay the costs of any medical care and specialist transport, they will also make sure that you have access to the right care. And they will manage this care until you are returned home. Many travel insurers also offer bespoke travel risk management services that include advice about location-specific diseases and other threats.

Infectious diseases can be

  • Foodborne
  • Waterborne
  • Vector-borne
  • Transmitted by animals
  • Sexually-transmitted
  • Bloodborne
  • Airborne
  • Transmitted via soil

Source: World Health Organisation (WHO)

References

http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malaria
http://www.who.int/hiv/data/en/
http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/communicable-diseases/influenza/data-and-statistics
http://www.who.int/globalchange/summary/en/index5.html
https://publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk/2018/02/21/disease-detectives-keeping-track-of-new-and-emerging-infectious-diseases/

For information about CEGA’s travel risk management services contact risk@cegagroup.com or see https://www.cegagroup.com/what-we-offer

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