Traveling Abroad? Watch Out for These Surprising Health Risks

Whether you’re getting ready for a gap year, a volunteer stint in a developing country, or just a far-flung vacation, here’s how to stay well and safe.

How to stay healthy while traveling globally, especially to developing countries.

It isn't something as huge as terrorism, or something as mundane as food poisoning, that threatens the lives and health of most young Americans abroad—it's two things we deal with right at home: STDs and car accidents. (Getty Images/Anna Zielinska)

Fran Kritz is a freelance writer specializing in health and health policy and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Volunteering abroad for a gap year, or during or after college, is, for many, a dream. Or maybe you just want to take a few months or a year off backpacking, making your way from Europe to Asia and beyond. When you’re lining up your Airbnb reservations and getting a new passport, however, it’s easy to forget that travel always comes with some risk—of illness, injury, and even death.

For example, earlier this month, Peace Corps volunteer Danielle Gucciardo, 23, of Woodhaven, Michigan, tragically died from injuries she received when struck by a car in Gulu, Uganda; Danielle had been teaching chemistry and biology at a high school in Gulu. According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), road crashes are the single biggest cause of death for healthy U.S. citizens traveling abroad annually. ASIRT president Rochelle Sobel—who founded the organization after her son, a medical student, was killed in a bus crash in Turkey—will be testifying before Congress in May to try to increase funds for improving road safety—in part through clearer signage and safer roads—in the developing world.

Medical officers are stationed at every Peace Corps post, and healthcare begins for new Peace Corps volunteers with the very first vaccine they need, before even leaving the U.S. But that’s certainly not the case for all volunteer opportunities or work situations, so before you take off, you may need to do research to find out both what you’ll need to prevent infections like malaria and dengue disease, and also how to get your medical needs, like prescription drugs you regularly take, while you’re abroad, says Michael Zimring, M.D., director of the Center for Wilderness and Travel Medicine at Mercy Medical Center, in Baltimore, Maryland, and co-author of Healthy Travel: Don’t Travel Without It.

“ ‘Protection, protection, protection’ against sexually transmitted diseases is what I reply in response to the number-one thing young adults need when traveling overseas,” says Dr. Zimring. “Sexual diseases can be rampant and sometimes more virulent, so using a condom for every sexual encounter can prevent illness and even death.” He adds that young adults don’t realize that while they may be up to date on vaccines needed for the U.S., these immunizations may not cover them in the places they’re traveling to.

Protection against STDs is the number-one thing young adults need when traveling overseas, says a leading travel-medicine doctor.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology especially urges first-time travelers—which many young adults are—to keep allergies in mind. Foreign countries, especially those in the developing world, often have different plants and flowers, and even people with no known allergies can find themselves sneezing and coughing up a storm. Consider packing an over-the-counter antihistamine and consulting a local doctor if that doesn’t ease your symptoms.

While the Peace Corps provides volunteers with health insurance coverage during their work abroad, other volunteer and employer groups may leave you on your own. If you’re already insured, ask about getting coverage overseas (policies vary). If you don’t have coverage, ask the company that’s employing you, or for whom you’re volunteering, for recommendations. Even if they don’t cover the cost, it may be more affordable than shopping on your own if a rate has been negotiated. Whatever you do, don’t forgo coverage if you’ll be abroad for a long time—even if you’ve passed up insurance in the U.S.

Here’s a quick roundup of sites with critical information to consult before you leave:

• Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s travel-health guide, including guidance on vaccinations

• The International Society of Travel Medicine

• U.S. Embassies and Consulates websites offer lists of doctors in specific countries: Click on the “U.S. Citizen Services” section of an individual embassy’s website, then on “Medical Information” for a list of physicians. (Note: These lists are not always well-maintained or updated.)

• For current travel warnings, go to the U.S. Department of State. The State Department’s site also includes country-by-country guides that include a “Medical Facilities and Health Information” section.

Where do you want to volunteer, work, or travel abroad? Have you chosen a program or employer that helps you stay healthy or provides care if you’re sick or hurt? 

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