Don't get bugged when you travel

Sometimes it feels like we're so bombarded with warnings about disease outbreaks around the world, you just want to stay home! Avian influenza, swine flu, malaria, cholera, Ebola, COVID-19... the list goes on, with new bugs popping up every year and old bugs making a comeback – some of them almost impossible to pronounce!

Travelling around the globe is more commonplace today than ever. But when people travel, they often unwittingly bring along extra baggage that they didn't even know they packed. Viruses and bacteria are always on the move, as travellers carry them either by travelling while ill or by being a carrier – having the infection but not experiencing symptoms yet.

Some illnesses are transmitted by animal or insect bites, others by contaminated food or water, others by close human contact in mostly rural areas. In the past few years, Health Canada has posted travel advisories and outbreaks for the following conditions:

From contaminated food or water: cholera, gastrointestinal illness, mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE), Salmonella, hepatitis A, listeriosis, botulism, shigellosis, ciguatera, enterovirus respiratory syndrome, gnathostomiasis, leptospirosis, and poliovirus

From insect bites: malaria, West Nile virus, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, plague, Rift Valley fever, Ross River virus, St. Louis encephalitis, yellow fever, and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever

From person to person: measles, mumps, meningitis, rubella, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), middle eastern respiratory syndrome (MERS), influenza, COVID-19, conjunctivitis, Ebola, acute respiratory infection, Marburg virus, plague, poliovirus, Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, tuberculosis, and hand, foot, and mouth disease

From animals (contact, bites, or dust from excrement): rabies, avian influenza, eastern equine encephalitis, hantavirus, Lassa fever, Nipah viruses, plague, and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever

Airborne: legionnaires' disease

The bright side: the odds are in your favour!

The good news is that you will probably be fine if you are staying in a good hotel and are using common sense ways of controlling your exposure to infection, such as proper handwashing and using insect repellant. And if you do come in contact with a virus or bacteria, there is an excellent chance that an antibiotic or other medication will preserve your good health.

Getting vaccinated against diseases that are common to your travel destination will give you extra peace of mind before you hop on that plane. But remember, you have a greater chance of catching a cold or the flu during your flight than in your travel destination, since you are in close proximity to other people and since the same air is continually recirculated in an airplane (although most planes usually pass the air through filters that trap the bugs that can cause illness). The Canadian flu vaccine offers protection against catching the flu on most airline routes. It needs to be injected every year, in the late autumn, to get full protection. Influenza is around during the winter in the northern and southern hemispheres and year-round at the equator. And remember: the southern hemisphere's winter happens during the northern hemisphere's summer, so think about flu vaccination if you're heading south of the equator during your summer holidays. Getting fully vaccinated, including getting any booster doses that you're eligible for, will protect you against COVID-19 and lower your risk of getting infected or experiencing severe outcomes like hospitalization.

General advice for avoiding person-to-person infections:

  • Avoid crowds or crowded areas.
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer or wash your hands frequently. Wipe any object such a phone receiver or computer keyboard before you use it.
  • Limit physical contact (handshaking, hugging, sharing objects) in possible infected areas.

For advice on avoiding infection from insect bites or animals, or from contaminated food or water, see "What travel vaccines won't prevent."

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