Tell me about… Not getting sick while on holiday

My husband and I recently went on a holiday to Africa, and he got diarrhea. It was so bad that we had to keep stopping for him to go to the bush. What sort of diseases should I look out for while going to a different country?

It all depends on which country you are travelling to. There are various factors to consider, including the current local climate, what sort of insects and parasites are prevalent in that country, and the sanitation of that country.

Even if you are travelling to a so-called “advanced” country like the United States or one in Europe, you can fall ill, especially if the weather is cool and you did not prepare well for it.

It is usually best to research the country you are going to before travelling.

You can also ask your travel agent for advice as they would be familiar with the climate and experienced in the necessary preparations.

You can also ask your family doctor, but in my experience, they know less about a certain country than the travel agent.

However, after your travel agent recommends what medicines or vaccinations to get, you can go to your local doctor to get them and ensure their suitability.

How long do I need to prepare “medically” before going somewhere?

You usually need four to six weeks.

This is because you may need some vaccinations, which usually take some time to be effective, depending on which country you are going to.

It also depends on what country you are from.

If you are a Malaysian, then you are likely to have been exposed to more endemic diseases than, for example, an American, like hepatitis A. Therefore, you might not need a hepatitis jab.

Here are some general rules:

If you are going to a place where accommodation, hygiene and sanitation are of a relatively high quality – such as the US and most parts of Europe, Japan, South Korea etc – there will be few risks to your health.

Unless, of course, it is in the middle of winter, and you don’t dress warmly enough and get a chill.

If you are going to a place where the accommodation, hygiene and sanitation are generally poor, then you should learn about the diseases of that country.

You should also always check your mode of transportation and keep in mind your own behaviour and lifestyle.

For example, there are some travellers who like to go for a walk outside.

If you are in a malaria endemic area, then doing so will increase your chances of being bitten by a malaria-infested mosquito.

If you like eating the local roadside cuisine of the country, then you may ingest contaminated food and water, which might result in communicable diseases like hepatitis A.

You also have to consult with your doctor if you have a pre-existing disease, such as kidney failure or heart failure, as this might make you more prone to contracting diseases and infections than the normal traveller.

You might also have to remember that the medical facilities of that country aren’t necessarily as good as your own’s, and prepare accordingly.

I am going to Peru.

Peru is in South America, where many countries are currently experiencing increased levels of the Zika virus.

If you are pregnant, you should not travel to Peru or South America, because Zika infection during pregnancy can cause serious birth defects.

You should take steps to prevent mosquito bites during and after your trip.

You should also use condoms during and after your trip to prevent sexual transmission of the Zika virus.

I am going for the haj in Mecca.

There is a risk of hepatitis A and typhoid, especially if you like to eat outside with the local people.

If you are doing the haj, you are required to get meningococcal vaccination to prevent against this type of meningitis. You may need proof of vaccination before being allowed to enter Saudi Arabia.

Respiratory tract infections, especially pneumonia, are common when performing the haj and being exposed to so many people. You are strongly encouraged to get the flu vaccine.

Also look out for MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).

What is traveller’s diarrhoea and how can I prevent it?

Traveller’s diarrhoea can happen to 30%-70% of all travellers, depending on the season!

It commonly happens because of poor hygiene in the country’s restaurants, and is caused by bacteria – the commonest being E. coli.

It is commoner in younger, rather than older travellers.

High-risk areas for traveller’s diarrhoea include most of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South America.

You usually get cramps, then diarrhoea, which can be bloody. You may also experience vomiting and fever.

If you don’t treat it, it can last up to three days for a viral infection and seven days for a bacterial infection.

You can prevent it by being very careful in what you eat. Drink only mineral water from a bottle, and go to reputable restaurants.

At this time, it is not recommended that you take prophylactic antibiotics as you are not sure which microbe might infect you.