Picture this: you’ve booked your plane ticket, and you’ve filled your itinerary with exciting places to explore, but after arriving at your dream destination you fall sick.
You’ve been caught off guard by the climate, or perhaps you’ve caught a disease or bug. Confined to your hotel room (or worse, a hospital ward), you realise, too late, that your travel plans should have included a visit to your doctor for travel medicine and vaccination counselling before leaving home.
Relatively unknown among Malaysians, travel medicine is a rapidly-growing interdisciplinary specialty in medicine. Travel medicine counselling provides personalised medical advice and treatment according to a traveller’s medical history, health status, destination country, purpose of travel and so forth.
According to family medicine specialist Dr Sasikala Devi A. Amirthalingam, travel medicine concentrates on protecting the traveller against diseases, illnesses and environmental risks that may be present in the destination country.
“Through travel medicine, vaccination counselling as well as appropriate preventive and curative medicine advise including environment-specific risks such as high altitudes, temperature and humidity, seasickness, mosquito and insect bites, and other factors that travellers may encounter, would be provided.
“It’s a growing service within the healthcare system as there are more Malaysians travelling abroad compared to a few decades ago.
“Frequent travelling also increases the risk of travellers falling ill and spreading new or re-emerging deadly diseases. Getting a comprehensive health screening prior to the start of an intense travelling schedule would alleviate potential health risks,” she said.
Travel medicine counselling is therefore not just about preventing precious holidays from being ruined, or important business trips from being derailed.
“By helping travellers stay healthy while abroad, travel medicine counselling also prevents the spread of diseases upon travellers’ return from foreign countries,” said Dr Sasikala.
Schedule a travel medicine counselling session
Regardless of the kind of travel you will be doing – solo or in a group, for business, leisure, spiritual or other purposes – travel medicine counselling could help you.
Many international travellers who catch a travel-related illness require medical treatment while still abroad or upon returning from their trips.
Dr Sasikala elaborates, “Even with insurance, seeking treatment in a foreign country can be very costly. For example, frequent visitors to developing countries, are advised to schedule an appointment as it can prevent unnecessary stress, inconvenience and financial expense.
“Yellow fever and malaria may still be rampant in some tropical countries and travellers should receive vaccinations or a booster dose before travelling.
“Traveller’s diarrhoea is also very common due to poor hygiene or bacteria found in food and water. Practise good hygiene and be cautious of what you consume during your trip.
“I recommend that travellers bring hand sanitiser to high-risk regions in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, and practice food and water hygiene to prevent catching traveller’s diarrhoea.”
Going on a pilgrimage
One of the key preparations before going off on a spiritual journey is ensuring a fit and healthy mind and body for a blessed and safe trip.
According to Dr Sasikala, pilgrims are exposed to higher health risks due to the concentration of people from around the world in one place at the same time.
The Malaysian Government, for example, is doing its part by pushing for all umrah and haj pilgrims to take precautions against diseases prior to their departure to Saudi Arabia.
Since 2002, the authorities have allocated funding for the Health Ministry to purchase meningococcal vaccines for Malaysians performing the haj.
Last November, Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad encouraged pilgrims to also receive the pneumococcal and influenza vaccines to avoid falling ill during their pilgrimage.
A highly contagious disease, the pneumococcal disease can easily spread through direct contact with an infected person or a carrier’s mucus or saliva.
In severe cases, it can cause inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, blood infection and pneumonia, which may lead to death.
A study among Malaysian pilgrims found that influenza vaccination is able to prevent 50-60% of hospital admissions and pneumonia. Many elderly individuals also have inherent chronic diseases.
A survey on Malaysian Umrah pilgrims found that 17.3% have an underlying chronic disease while 21.5% suffer from more than one disease.
“Apart from vaccinations, take the time to undergo health screening as this is another way to ensure one is fit and healthy. Comprehensive health screening could help detect problems before the symptoms show, allowing you to prevent certain diseases, or greatly increases your chances of treating or managing them successfully,” advises Dr Sasikala.
Last minute pointers
Regardless of where your next adventure takes you, your health should always come first.
Dr Sasikala recommends that travellers schedule a travel medicine counselling session and health screening four to six weeks before the trip to allow vaccinations and booster shots to become effective.
“Some vaccines will require multiple shots over a period of time. Most vaccines require one to two weeks to take effect. Plan ahead.
“Make sure that your traveller’s immunisation history is up to date and you are fit to travel.
“Most doctors will also likely recommend that you pack a travel medicine kit with the necessary over-the-counter medications such as antihistamine, painkillers, antiseptic cream, insect repellent, anti-diarrhoeal medicine and more for hassle-free travel,” she said.
At the same time, travellers should check whether certain medications or medical conditions require a doctor’s letter.
What’s considered controlled substances varies from one country to another. If you fail to adhere to the country’s guidelines, your medication may be confiscated; you may be fined or denied entry into the country; or worse, jailed for trafficking what they consider to be narcotics.
“Confirm with the respective country’s embassy/consulate whether your medication must be accompanied by a doctor’s letter and prescription,” said Dr Sasikala.
Most countries allow up to 30 days supply as long as travellers carry a medical certificate or a prescription.
She concluded, “Take no chances, spend time to ensure your health is in tip-top shape before going abroad. After all, prevention is always better than cure.”
This article is courtesy of IMU Healthcare. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.