It was a trip of a lifetime, nearly ruined by a chicken salad. My husband and I were staying at a pleasantly rustic lodge in northern Madagascar. We spent one morning exploring the Ankàrana reserve, watching lemurs negotiate limestone pinnacles and finding chameleons no bigger than a fingernail. By the time we returned to the lodge, we were ravenous, and I polished off a big salad with grilled chicken.
Bad idea. My mistake was not just eating raw food, but eating raw food in a nearly empty resort in the middle of nowhere. (Did I mention there was only one other couple at the lodge?) I quickly came down with the worst case of food poisoning I’ve ever experienced—strong words from a long-time expatriate in Asia.
A stomach bug is just one of the many health hazards that can derail a holiday—especially in Asia. Nasty mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria are endemic in the region. Last year, Cambodia, Singapore and Vietnam recorded rises in dengue fever cases, while Japanese encephalitis sickens up to 50,000 people a year in Asia according to the World Health Organization.
Hepatitis A and B, cholera, and typhoid also lurk in this region. And let’s not forget that densely populated Asian cities are perfect incubators for new strains of flu as well as deadly viruses such as SARS. The WHO also cites reckless driving as one of the leading causes of death in the developing world.
Before you buy that bio-hazard suit, here are some practical steps you can take to ensure a healthy holiday.
1.) Planning is essential, says Dr. Limin Wijaya, a consultant at the department of infectious diseases at Singapore General Hospital. She suggests visiting a doctor before a holiday to update any vaccinations and to ask for any destination-specific advice.
Familiarize yourself with the health concerns of your destination. The website of the Centers for Disease Control (cdc.gov) is a treasure trove of information that is regularly updated. One caveat: well-seasoned travelers might find it overly cautious.
2.) Pack a medicine kit, especially if you’re headed somewhere remote. Among the basics that Wijaya recommends are anti-diarrhea medications such as loperamide, oral rehydration sachets, antihistamines, painkillers, insect repellants, sunscreen and first-aid supplies. Vitamin C supplements such as Emergen-C are handy when you feel a cold coming. U.S.-based Adventure Medical (adventuremedicalkits.com) sells ready-to-go kits for thrill-seekers as well as cautious parents.
If you’re on regular medication, don’t forget to bring copies of your prescriptions—and check the availability of the medications in the country you’re going to.
3.) Slather on the repellant to help prevent mosquito-borne diseases. Heavy recent flooding in Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia means more mosquitoes, so take extra precautions and keep an eye out for any news of outbreaks. If you’re traveling to areas with high malaria risk—rural Cambodia, East Timor, the more far-flung islands of Indonesia—take antimalarials. Double check whether the strain of malaria found in the region is drug-resistant.
4.) Play it safe with food and water. Use common sense when it comes to eating and drinking. At a busy Bangkok food stall that’s serving freshly prepared hot food? You’re probably safe. Chicken salad in an isolated lodge in Madagascar with only four guests? Need I say more?
5.) Wash your hands with soap. Face masks—especially the disposable kind—are not the best tool in preventing air-borne infections. They’re often worn incorrectly and they become wet from the condensation of your breath, which makes them less effective. Hand-washing works because we are constantly touching our eyes, noses, or mouths after placing our hands on potentially contaminated surfaces.
6.) Don’t pet stray animals. Asia is witnessing a resurgence in rabies—according to the WHO, more than 80 percent of the annual world’s cases are found in the region.