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A Guide to World Deseases
by Ulysses Travel
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Main travel page | Our travel agency | International travel | Safety tips | Travel dangers by country
The main source on diseases: CDC

Read about causes, symptoms, prevention, etc of...

Note about other diseases:
  • Cholera is very rare and outbreaks are generally publicized. The vaccine is only 50% effective (as of 2004, many countries stopped using cholera vaccines because they were ineffective).
  • Tubercolosis is on the rise again, and no country is excepted. The new strains are resistant to vaccines. Tubercolosis outbreaks are also widely publicized. Your chances of getting TB abroad are pretty much the same of getting it at home.
  • Diarrhea is, by far, the most common stomach upset of the traveler. It just happens, and in most cases it goes away within three days. It is just very annoying and embarrassing. Try to stay put for a few days in a big city where the local pharmacy may have pills to alleviate it.

Common sense

Or "Your attitude is more important than medicines"...

Watching what you eat and drink when you travel is as important as being vaccinated. This is because the vaccines are not completely effective (and in some cases may be even counterproductive). Avoiding risky foods and risky activities (sex, drugs) will help protect you from all the most common illnesses, including cholera, dysentery, and hepatitis B.

Drink only bottled water and use only bottled water for brushing your teeth. It is much healthier to spend a month without brushing your teeth than brushing your teeth with contaminated water. Bottled carbonated water is safer than uncarbonated water. Ask for drinks without ice: batteria love ice. Eat foods that have been thoroughly cooked and that are still hot and steaming. Avoid raw vegetables and fruits that you did not peel yourself. Vegetables like lettuce are easily contaminated and are very hard to wash well (and you have to trust that the water used to wash them is not contaminated).

Before you eat, wash your hands. Americans tend to eat without first washing their hands, both at home and abroad: this may be the single most frequent cause of food-related diseases in America (and for Americans abroad).

Meat is never a good idea. Even if you believe that the human stomach was built to digest meat, only a fool would believe that the human stomach was built to deal with the bacteria that come with meat: no animal on this planet is as vulnerable as humans to meat-based bacteria. Cooking the meat is often not enough.

Alcohol and drugs, while not directly related to any disease, do not make your immune system stronger, in fact they often make it more vulnerable to ALL viruses and bacteria.

Finally, avoid foods and beverages from street vendors, unless you are on a really desperate budget.

AIDS is probably a much higher risk than any of the diseases listed in this page. And it kills a lot more people.

While health concerns may be legitimate for people prone to food poisoning or with weak immune systems, by far pickpockets are a much more serious threat, especially for travellers coming from countries such as Northern Europe and the USA, where pickpockets are rare. Your vacation is more likely to be ruined because they steal your camera than because you get sick.
Vaccines are very popular with many American and European travelers. You should remember these points though:
  1. No vaccine is 100% effective. Precautions still apply. For example, no vaccine will protect you from all types of malaria, or even from one specific type of malaria. The only way to be mathematically sure of not getting malaria is avoiding mosquito bites. Incidentally, many more cases of dengue are reported among travelers than cases of malaria. There is no vaccine against dengue, and dengue is also transmitted by mosquito bites. So the solution is not a vaccine or malaria pills, but avoiding mosquito bites. Invest in a mosquito repellent (which are usually very cheap in third-world countries), long-sleeve shirts and long pants and maybe a mosquito net (the vast majority of hotels provide one, but yours is more likely to be intact when you need it).
  2. The side effects of a vaccine are unpredictable. It is easy to prove statistically that people who are vaccinated will get sick more often than people who are not vaccinated. A vaccine protects you against a specific disease, but, by messing with your immune system, may make yourself more vulnerable to a whole set of other diseases. Hopefully, the latter are only minor diseases, such as vomit and headache, but it is not rare that a person who had just been vaccinated against 3 or 4 diseases gets sick and spends many days in bed with fever while somebody who had not been vaccinated at all is healthy the whole time. Also, the effectiveness of most vaccines decreases as you re-use them. Like all abuses, abusing of vaccines is not a good idea: get vaccinated only when really necessary (e.g., jungle trekking in Africa), and rely mostly on precautions, not on medicines.
That said, some vaccines make sense because they last a long time: hepatitis A (20 years), typhoid (5 years) and especially tetanus (10 years). Get them not because you are traveling to an exotic country, but because they will protect you for a long time. Malaria pills are so cheap in these countries (but not in the USA!) that you may as well indulge if (if) you are planning to stay for a while in a malaria-infested area or you are traveling during the rain season (but remember you should start taking them at least one week before you enter the region). If you have at least one week before you enter the dangerous area, do get the malaria pills once you are in the country: there are dozens of different kinds of malaria and USA/European doctors routinely give you very expensive pills that will be totally useless against the malaria of the country you are going to visit (the difference in price can easily be 40-50 times). In most countries malaria pills are sold over the counter.