Wearing long-sleeved clothing is one way to help protect yourself from mosquito-borne illnesses while travelling (photo: Boogich/iStock)

Protect Yourself Against Travel Viruses

By Craig Moy

Travelling to other countries can be among life’s most enriching experiences. But it’s not without risk. Warmer climates and inadequate sanitation in certain places can promote the spread of diseases that aren’t typically found in Canada. While in most cases it’s not necessary to avoid heading to these destinations, it is important to protect yourself—with knowledge, and medicine if possible.

Once you’ve booked your trip with AMA Travel, it’s best to consult your doctor or a travel-health specialist at least six weeks before travelling abroad, to ensure you’re immunized against common viruses and know how to best protect yourself against diseases for which fewer reliable treatments exist*. AMA members save on travel-consultation fees, injection fees and more at Medicentres. And don’t forget to purchase travel medial insurance when leaving the country.

HEPATITIS A

What you need to know
Hepatitis A is one of a number of contagious viruses that affect the liver. It’s often spread through food or drinks that have been contaminated with the feces of an infected person, and is most common in areas where there are poor sanitary conditions or poor personal hygiene.

What the symptoms are
Persons infected with Hepatitis A generally take two to six weeks to become symptomatic, and the severity of the illness typically increases with age. (Children who contract Hep A often get only mildly sick.) The disease’s symptoms can include fever, loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, jaundice and dark-coloured urine. These may last anywhere from a few weeks to several months.

Fortunately, unlike the similar Hepatitis B and C viruses, Hepatitis A is not a chronic disease. Most people ultimately recover without long-term side effects.

How to protect yourself
There are a handful of vaccines that are effective in preventing Hepatitis A. If you’re planning to travel to an area where the virus is prevalent, and are not yet immunized, you should get vaccinated at least two weeks before your departure. A second injection, given six months after the first, results in long-term protection from the virus.

There is no specific treatment regime for those who are not immunized and contract the virus. Rest, fluids and maintaining a nutritious diet are among the standard recommendations.

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MALARIA

What you need to know
Malaria is a life-threatening disease that’s prevalent in tropical and subtropical climates, but which is particularly endemic in Sub-Saharan Africa. The disease is caused by parasites that are transmitted through the bites of infected mosquitoes. The World Health Organization recorded 214 million cases of malaria in 2015, resulting in 438,000 deaths, but Canada only sees about 14 cases annually.

What the symptoms are
The danger of contracting malaria lies in the difficulty of diagnosing it. The disease’s initial symptoms include fever, chills, headache and vomiting—common signs of a variety of less severe maladies. If left untreated, however, malaria may progress to a much more serious illness, with complications such as severe anemia, respiratory distress, kidney failure and neurological impairment, potentially leading to death. Infants and children, as well as pregnant women, are particularly at risk to develop severe malaria.

How to protect yourself
There is no vaccine for malaria. Drugs exist that can help to prevent contracting the disease, but none are 100 percent effective and all have a variety of disadvantages, including the fact that they’re expensive. Recommendations for antimalarial drug types also differ based on the country you intend to visit. Thus it’s important to assess your health and travel plans with a medical professional, at least six weeks before your departure, to determine the risk associated with your trip.

Regardless of whether or not you are prescribed antimalarial medication, if you’re travelling to a region where malaria is present, you’ll want to protect yourself from mosquito bites by using insect repellent and bed nets, wearing long-sleeved clothing and by staying in air-conditioned or screened-in accommodations.

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ZIKA

What you need to know
If you’ve considered travelling to tropical or subtropical destinations within the past year, you’ve almost certainly heard of Zika. The mosquito-borne virus was first identified in the mid 20th century, but only recently has it been of concern for Canadian travellers. That’s because Zika infection during pregnancy can cause microcephaly, a serious birth defect. Zika’s effect is generally mild for adults who aren’t pregnant, but in rare cases, the virus is thought to be a trigger for Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

Zika is spread primarily by the bite of Aedes mosquitoes—particularly the Aedes aegypti species, which can also carry diseases such as dengue fever and yellow fever. Person-to-person sexual transmission is also possible.

According to the World Health Organization, as of November 2016, nearly 50 countries in South and Central America, as well as the Caribbean, have reported cases of Zika since 2015. Brazil’s outbreak is among the largest and most notorious, but the virus has also been reported in major tourism destinations including Mexico, Costa Rica and Cuba. Transmission via local mosquito populations has also been reported in Florida, and is theoretically possible throughout the southern United States.

What the symptoms are
Zika infection typically presents with mild symptoms—such as a fever, headache, rashes, and joint and muscle pain—that last for two to seven days. Some people who contract Zika will in fact develop no symptoms at all. Zika’s severity lies in the complications it can cause, notably the birth defect microcephaly, where a newborn’s head is smaller than average, indicating a potentially underdeveloped brain.

How to protect yourself
The risk of microcephaly caused by Zika is significant enough that pregnant women are advised not to travel to regions where mosquito-borne Zika transmission has been reported. Similarly, women planning a pregnancy should wait at least two months after visiting a Zika-reporting country before trying to conceive. Men who have visited a Zika-reporting country should use condoms or avoid having sex for at least six months, as the virus can persist in semen for an extended period of time.

No vaccine exists to prevent Zika; the best way to avoid contracting it is to protect yourself from mosquito bites. Among other things, that means wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants and using insect repellent containing DEET on exposed skin. Choose accommodations that are screened-in, and which have insect nets over beds, so you’re not at risk of being bitten while you sleep.

*You may also wish to read this guide to healthy travel, produced by the Canadian government.

WE’VE GOT YOU COVERED
No matter if you’re travelling out-of-province or out-of-country, travel medical insurance is recommended. Get an online quote for one of a number of travel medical insurance plans.