Getting sick on the road is part and parcel of backpacking. Whether it be Delhi belly from eating Indian street meat, or poisoning from drinking too much booze at a full-moon party, a little bit of pain and discomfort seems to be an unavoidable part of the contemporary traveler’s experience.
Whilst most ailments are mercifully minor, there are however some far more serious health concerns which any sensible traveler really should take into account. Dangerous, infectious and tropical diseases are, sadly a reality of day to day life across Asia, Latin America and just about everywhere popular amongst 21st-century backpackers.
Knowing how to best protect yourself against these diseases is something you should familiarise yourself before you even leave home. Foreknowledge and adequate preparation really can mean all the difference between life and death out there in backpackistan…
8 common traveler illnesses to watch out for
(Please note – this guide is provided for general information purposes only. If you are going traveling, seek professional medical advice)
1. Yellow Fever
Yellow Fever is a mosquito-borne virus (stay tuned for more of those) which can cause death in some cases. In countries such as Panama and much of Africa, Yellow Fever is taken so seriously that travelers will not even be allowed entry without evidence of a valid vaccination.
Border control may check your vaccination certificate at the same time they check your passport and visa (if applicable). The Yellow Fever certificate is issued once you receive your vaccination and remains valid for 10 years. Keep this safe because replacing it can prove difficult, and of course, you risk being turned back without it!
Typhoid is a bacterial infection passed on through food or drink and in some cases, from the waste product of infected patients. It attacks a number of organs and causes headaches, cramping, fever, and diarrhea. Unless treated promptly and properly, Typhoid can turn fatal.
Typhoid is very common in India and Pakistan so I personally always ensure my vaccinations are up to date with this one. Additional precautions include being very careful about what and where you eat and drink. Of course, you should already be doing this anyway whenever you’re visiting India.
Hepatitis is a condition which causes inflammation of the liver resulting in very unpleasant symptoms and in some cases death. There are a number of different strains of the disease which are categorized by the way in which infection is passed to humans. The strains of particular concern for the backpacker are A & B.
Hepatitis A – This one is caused by eating food or drinking water that has been contaminated by infected sufferers. It is pretty common in all countries where hygiene standards are low. Vaccination is available and generally, patients are given one injection followed by a booster dose 6 or 12 months later which provides protection for 10 years. Vaccination is widely available as a two-in-one shot along with Hepatitis B.
In addition to considering vaccination, the best way to avoid Hepatitis A is by being mindful of what and where you eat and by being very cautious about all drinking water.
Hepatitis B – This strain is transmitted by blood and so the common causes of infection are sharing needles, contact with open wounds and unprotected sex. Vaccination is widely available as a two-in-one shot along with Hepatitis A.
In addition to considering vaccination, Hep B can be best avoided by always practicing safe sex with condoms. You may also wish to consider bringing your own sealed, hyper-dermic medical syringe with you in case you are admitted to hospital during your trip – you can simply ask the Doctor or Nurse to use it.
Tattoo gun’s may also pose an infection risk and whilst we do not advise against travel tattoo’s (cos they’re ace!), we totally do advise doing due diligence and research on both the artist and the studio. If you have any doubts about the hygiene standards, then go elsewhere.
4. Japanese Encephalitis
You may not ever have heard of this one because it is thankfully, quite rare. However, some medical professionals still recommend vaccination because there is no known cure for the disease and because there is quite a high mortality rate amongst infected patients.
The disease is carried by mosquitoes and is therefore not limited to Japan (the winged blighters know no borders!). Rather it is found across South East Asia and the Pacific especially in rural areas. In addition to the vaccine, you can best protect yourself by using a mosquito net to sleep, by applying enough good quality repellent and by considering wearing specialist mosquito proof clothing when out in nature.
Rabies is caused by the bites and scratches from infected animals. Therefore vaccination is something you really should consider if you are going on safari or volunteering with animals. That said, unhealthy street dogs are commonplace throughout the developing world and most places I have backpacked would, therefore, pose at least some Rabies risk.
However, the Rabies vaccine doesn’t actually provide a full inoculation but instead, it gives your body an extra 24 hour to get to a hospital for treatment in the event of an infecting injury. In most cases, you will always be within 24 hours of a hospital wherever you are in the world unless of course, you are going deep into the jungle or high up a mountain.
That said, vaccination it always worth considering and you should seek professional medical advice to see what best suits your needs. The vaccine is not currently available on the British NHS and British citizens will need to acquire it privately.
Cholera is a water-borne infection that can essentially cause a deeply unpleasant death by diarrhea. It is found throughout parts of South America, Africa and Asia where there are unclean water supplies and sub-standard sewage treatment.
Throughout history, nasty Cholera epidemics have decimated various populations although nowadays the disease is proving a bit easier to control. That said, infection remains a real concern and vaccination is still recommended for travelers in certain cases (as it was in my case when I visited the Caribbean coast of South America).
Whether you receive a vaccination or not, you can best protect yourself against Cholera by washing your hands regularly and using a reputable hand-sanitizer before eating. Additionally, you should only drink water from sealed bottles and even brush your teeth with this water.
Malaria is yet another mosquito infection and remains a major concern across South America, Africa, and India with a steady infection rate as well as infrequent epidemics. Symptoms include vomiting, aches & fever and unless treated fast, can often prove fatal.
Whilst a number of diseases and health conditions can be prevented by getting vaccinated before you leave for your trip, there is no vaccine for Malaria. Instead but anti-malarial tablets are available which can help improve your bodies resistance. They have been known to cause a host of side effects and so you should always take professional advice before taking these.
Many travelers don’t use anti-malarials and instead, simply opt to protect themselves by using plenty of good quality repellent as well as sleeping under a mosquito net. If you are going jungle trekking then special mosquito proof clothing may also be a wise investment. If in doubt, seek professional medical advice before you leave home.
Tetanus generally infects humans through exposed skin and cuts. Common causes include burns, animal bites and even scratches from rusty fencing. Because of the potential for “everyday” infection risks (getting a bit of dirt into an existing, small cut for example), vaccination is highly recommended. You may well have received a Tetanus vaccination as a child but in some cases, travel clinics do recommend boosters.
The diseases and illness’ facing travelers are in a constant state of flux and the WHO regularly issues different warnings about various disease outbreaks. Therefore, this post is only to be used as a rough guide outlying the most common traveler illnesses and their mitigations.
In all cases, we strongly advise that you seek professional medical advice before going traveling. Also be sure to take out comprehensive travel health insurance!
Stay safe out there guys!
Freeborn Aiden. Senior Editor, resident travel insurance expert and 2nd longest-serving member of team Broke Backpacker. Can’t resist a colourful shirt, ideally one with no buttons. Rampant Psytrance addict and seriel cat fancier. Aiden recently realised that his entire reality is little more than a badly written 90’s sitcom.