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THE PERILS OF PARADISE
 
(2024 - Winter/Spring Issue)

Writer: REBECCA FIELD JAGER



Canadians lucky enough to be heading to Mexico or the Caribbean could be in for an unfortunate surprise. From travellers’ diarrhea, a condition that may keep you confined to your room in severe cases, to mosquito-borne illnesses that may result in health complications upon your return, these are some of the perils in paradise. Happily, however, the risks of getting sick from bad food or bug bites can be significantly lowered. It all begins with education.

Kelly Haggerty, the pharmacist/owner of Bright’s Grove Family Pharmacy near Sarnia, Ontario, recommends talking to a travel health practitioner at least six weeks prior to departure. The holder of a certificate in travel health from the International Society of Travel Medicine, she sees an uptick in consultations around this time of year.

“Often, people ask what the chances of becoming ill are in a certain destination, but figuring out the risk is not that straightforward and is based on a number of factors.”

Assessing Travel Health Risks

Diarrhea is one of the most common illnesses that affect travellers. Assessing the risk of getting diarrhea involves asking the following questions:

Where Are You Going?

Not all regions across Mexico or countries in the Caribbean present the same risk. Generally, lower socio-economic regions present a higher risk and wealthier regions present a lower one. If you’re travelling to the Dominican Republic, for example, sanitation systems and poor-quality water can make a salad bar, packed with ingredients washed on-site, susceptible to bacteria that will cause gastrointestinal grief. To cut the risk, Haggarty recommends avoiding raw vegetables and drinking only bottled water and sealed beverages in such regions. Surprisingly, however, even a wealthier country can present a medium risk. Severe weather such as a hurricane can damage sanitation systems and water sources. Timing, in this instance, is everything. A diligent travel health provider will check weather reports as well as seasonality issues even for clients going to high socio-economic islands such as Bermuda.

Where Are You Staying?

Accommodations matter primarily because they affect your food and water source. Too often, folks heading to ritzy resorts are lulled into thinking everything is safe. Again, it goes back to the variables. You may be at a luxury resort but if the water supply systems are inferior the risk is increased.

Bunking down at an Airbnb or other home share? Many travellers choose these “live like a local” accommodations, shop at local food markets and base the safety of the water supply on their host’s assessment. A travel health practitioner weighs such factors into your risk calculation.

Why Are You Travelling?

Don’t be surprised if your travel health practitioner asks about your reasons for travel. They’re not playing customs officer—they’re assessing the level of preventative measures. For example, if you’re heading to a destination wedding in the Caribbean or Mexico and want to decrease your risk of getting diarrhea, you may be recommended to take an oral vaccine that significantly cuts the risk of diarrhea caused by a particular strain of E. coli bacteria. Known as ETEC, this heat-sensitive toxin stands as the most prevalent pathogen causing travel-related diarrhea across various regions globally.

Even casual travellers may be advised to pack antibiotics in case of severe diarrhea. Over-the-counter products such as loperamide (Imodium) are good for occasional diarrhea that may in fact be caused by a change in diet.

Mosquitoes

For mosquito-related illnesses, country and region matter a lot. Fortunately, there is very little malaria in the typical tourist areas of Mexico or the Caribbean. However, mosquito-borne diseases such as chikungunya, dengue and Zika virus are on the rise globally some of which are spread by mosquitoes that mainly bite during the day.

“Unfortunately, there are currently no effective vaccines for these diseases,” says Haggarty and adds, “Pills are available to prevent malaria but good insect precautions are the only strategy for most of the others.” The best way to protect yourself against any of these infections is to prevent mosquito bites. Avoid being outside when the bugs are most active, often at dawn and dusk.

Make the most of your paradise holiday and avoid the health perils when travelling to Mexico or the Caribbean.

 
 
 
 
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