The global outbreak of Zika, an incurable virus spread through animal or insect bites, has turned the attention of Canadians toward the health risks involved in venturing abroad. While Zika cannot yet be prevented by vaccine, medical experts encourage Canadians to protect their health with existing travel immunizations—a precautionary step that not all travellers seem to take.

“Diseases like Ebola and Zika are scary, but let’s remember they’re rare, and we continue to learn more about them; meanwhile, for common diseases, we have safe and effective vaccines that we are underutilizing,” says Dr. Vivien Brown, President, Federation of Medical Women of Canada and family physician in Toronto. “We need to look at the big picture when we’re talking about travellers’ health, and vaccines are one of the things you can use to protect yourself.” 

Travel “to-dos”

Packed? Check. Passport? Check. Prescriptions? Check. But what about precautionary travel immunizations?

Before boarding a plane, says Dr. Brown, Canadians should ensure that their routine vaccinations are up to date, and that they have received any applicable travel vaccines, such as for hepatitis A and B, as well as travellers’ diarrhea, the most common illness for those venturing overseas, according to the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation.

Travellers’ diarrhea, an illness typically caused by consuming food or drink, or even just an ice cube in a cocktail, that is contaminated with E. coli bacteria, can have vacationers running to the bathroom up to 20 times a day, sweating through a fever, doubled over with cramps and suffering from serious fluid loss.

While the risks for contracting travellers’ diarrhea are higher in certain areas, such as in developing nations like the Caribbean, Mexico and Latin America, Dr. Brown says that it can be contracted anywhere and can completely ruin a vacation or, in severe cases, result in a trip to the hospital.

Research indicates that within the first three days of vacation, 98 percent of travellers will make a mistake in the choices they make when eating or drinking, increasing their risk for contracting harmful bacteria. Though the vaccine cannot completely prevent travellers’ diarrhea, it reduces the risk, a step that Dr. Brown says is worth taking.

Destination-specific risks

Since health risks can vary greatly based on the destination, the Government of Canada’s travel health site lists location-specific diseases. For instance, those travelling to Southern Asia need to be cautious about typhoid fever, an illness contracted from consuming food or water that has been contaminated with fecal matter.

Similar to travellers’ diarrhea, typhoid can be contracted unknowingly from unlikely sources, such as eating food that was washed in contaminated water, and causes non-specific symptoms such as fever, headache, nausea and abdominal pain. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, more than 75 percent of cases result in hospitalization.

Prevention of typhoid comes in the form of an injection or an oral vaccine that cut travellers’ risk of this disease in half.

Be safe vs. sorry

While there are a lot of things to do before jetting off on a vacation or business trip, travel vaccines must be at the top of the “to-do” list.

To Dr. Brown, getting immunized before travelling is just like putting sunblock on to protect against skin cancer: a precautionary measure to prevent disease. “It’s the most important thing that you do, because everything else falls by the wayside if you get really sick.”