Published June 16, 2014
John A. Sellick, Jr., DO, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, says three main precautionary measures can help travelers to tropical and developing areas avoid illness: get vaccinated, keep insects away and be careful what you put in your mouth.
“Most diseases are transmitted by food, water and insects,” says Sellick, who emphasizes the importance of prevention when traveling outside of the United States, Canada, western Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
“Many infections are not life-threatening but why take the chance?” he says.
“Hepatitis A and typhoid fever are present in much of the developing world,” Sellick notes. Both are typically spread by contaminated food and water.
Malaria, spread by infected mosquitoes, is found in most tropical countries.
“If you’re staying in a five-star hotel downtown, the risks may be lower, but they still exist,” he says. “The risks go up considerably if you’re traveling to a remote region or hiking in the rainforest.”
Sellick offers the following suggestions for safe, healthy travel:
Get vaccinated against the hepatitis A virus and typhoid bacteria if you are traveling outside the United States, Canada, western Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“In most cases, you won’t die from typhoid fever but it can cause severe illness,” Sellick says. “For those taking immunosuppressing drugs such as steroids or medications for rheumatoid arthritis, typhoid fever could be lethal.”
Pre-travel medications may be prescribed to prevent malaria.
For hikers and climbers, acute mountain sickness can strike if an ascent is taken too quickly, so take precautions, Sellick advises. People who hike the Inca Trail in Peru will be more than 10,000 feet above sea level.
To prevent insect-borne illnesses such as dengue and chikungunya fever, which are common in tropical areas and cannot be prevented with vaccinations, Sellick advises travelers to:
Many other infectious agents, for which no vaccines are available, are transmitted by water.
Outside the Western or developed world — including Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Mexico — “do not put a drop of local water in your mouth,” Sellick says.
“Consume only boiled, major-brand bottled or carbonated beverages,” he advises. Also, do not drink anything with ice, as freezing water does not kill infectious agents.
Travel clinics specialize in providing appropriate immunizations and counseling about precautions and risks in specific regions.
“Even those traveling to major tourist destinations in the Caribbean and Latin America should check with a travel clinic,” Sellick says.
Sellick is a staff physician at the University at Buffalo’s Student Health Services, where he often counsels and treats students who travel abroad.
He also is a practicing physician with the UBMD group and a hospital epidemiologist for the Veterans Affairs Western New York Healthcare System.
In recognition of his outstanding commitment to excellence and service, Sellick was honored with a 2014 Laureate Award from the New York chapter of the American College of Physicians.