From vaccines to medical checklist, this is how you can focus on your health as a traveler.
Ask any traveler and they’ll tell you that staying healthy on the road can be a challenge, especially if you venture off the beaten path. For those who have traveled to South America and for the countless many who are planning to go (which, in a few months’ time, will include myself), there are quite a few precautions and advice you need to know before taking that final plunge into this amazing continent. The good news is that there are plenty of health tips, resources and information available to avoid any potential pitfalls.
Before you go…
If you have any medication make sure to bring it in its original container. It’s a good idea to have a physician’s letter detailing your prescriptions and medical conditions, to avoid any hassle from customs. And if you carry needles and syringes, a letter from your doctor will come in handy when explaining their medical necessity to skeptical customs officers.
Travel insurance is always a big question. In general it’s always good to have at least some form of insurance but it’s not always necessary; it really depends on where you go and what you plan to do. Remember, the longer your trip the more likely it is that you’ll need it (though, after spending three months backpacking in Europe, I found I had no need for it). It is, however, highly recommended to get some form of travel insurance while in South America, given the number of recommended vaccinations and especially if you’re traveling long term.
Pay close attention to the fine print and read specifically what the policy does and does not cover. Some plans, for instance, will not cover outdoor activities such as hiking, rafting, skydiving, etc., so you’ll need to pick the right one for you. Also, find out if the insurance policy will pay providers directly or reimburse you (the patient) for any health expenditures after the fact.
Cost per plans will vary but it breaks down on average to around $1.50-$3 a day, depending on the duration of your trip. Check with your current healthcare provider to see if they have international coverage, if they do then there’s no need to buy additional insurance. And it’s always a good idea to shop around for insurance options; here are a few sites worth checking out:
- For all travelers: lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance
- Australia: smartraveller.gov.au/insurance/
- USA: travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/go/health/providers.html
- UK: travelinsuranceguide.org.uk/
Because we never know when we might need some medical attention, it’s always a good habit to pack some medical supplies with you before you head out on any adventure. Here’s an essential list of items you should consider packing before you leave:
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol or aspirin)
- Acetazolamide (Diamox; will come in handy for altitude sickness)
- Adhesive or paper tape
- Antibacterial ointment (for cuts and abrasions, a must if you’re hiking or trekking)
- Antibiotics for diarrhea (e.g. Norfloxacin, Ciprofloxacin or Azithromycin)
- Antihistamines (hay fever an allergic reactions)
- Anti-inflammatory drugs (e.g. ibuprofen)
- Anti-septic wipes (to clean wounds)
- Any number of bandages, gauze and gauze rolls
- Insect repellent (make sure it contains DEET and the higher the DEET percentage the more effective it is to ward off bites)
- Iodine tablets for water purification (incredibly useful in remote locations, jungle trekking or any location where water is generally considered not safe for consumption)
- Loperamide (a diarrhea ‘stopper’)
- Moleskine (helps prevent blisters on your feet, a must for serious trekkers)
- Oral rehydration salts (for severe dehydration)
- Permethrin-containing insect repellent for clothing, tents and bed nets (the spray will continue to be effective even if you launder your items, sometimes up to several weeks after the initial spray)
- Pocket knife
- Scissors, safety pins, tweezers, sowing needle and thread (great to sow torn clothes or backpack straps, and if you’re out of thread you can always use dental floss)
- Steroid cream or cortisone (poison ivy and other allergic reactions)
There’s a plethora of information available online to help prepare you for your trip. Check out World Health Organization for all the latest news and information on health advice, including their International Travel and Health book which is revised annually and available for sale ($12 as a downloadable PDF or e-book). Another great resource is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) site for Traveler’s Health. MD Travel Health contains a wealth of information from doctors and fellow travelers on every country in the world, with information updated daily.
Most vaccines won’t produce immunity until 2-3 weeks after being administered, so it is important that you visit your doctor 4-8 weeks prior to your departure. Also, make sure to ask your doctor for an International Certificate of Vaccination (the well-known yellow booklet), which will list all the vaccines you’ve received. It is crucial that you obtain one, as you can (and will) be refused entry into countries that require certain vaccinations. However, the only required vaccine in South America is for Yellow Fever, but only if you’re arriving from a country in Africa or the Americas that is afflicted by the disease (the one exception is French Guiana, which requires all prospective travelers to be vaccinated).
There are, however, several recommended vaccines all travelers should consider before heading out to South America. These include:
|Vaccine||Recommended For||Dosage||Side Effects|
|Chickenpox||Anyone who’s never had chickenpox||Two doses taken one month apart||Fever; mild case of chickenpox|
|Hepatitis A||All travelers||One dose before trip; booster dose taken 6-12 months later||Soreness at injection area; headaches and body aches|
|Hepatitis B||Anyone traveling long-term and in close contact with local populations||Three doses taken over 6 months||Soreness at injection area; slight fever|
|Measles||Anyone born after 1956 who’ve had only one measles vaccination||One dose||Fever; rash; joint pains; allergic reactions|
|Rabies||Anyone who may have contact with animals and without proper access to medical attention||Three doses over 3-4 weeks||Soreness at injection area, headaches and body aches|
|Tetanus-diphtheria||Anyone who hasn’t had a booster shot within 10 years||One dose last 10 years||Soreness at injection area|
|Typhoid||All travelers||Four capsules taken orally, one every other day||Abdominal pain, nausea, rash|
|Yellow Fever||Anyone traveling to jungle areas at altitudes above 2300m||One dose lasts 10 years||Headaches and body aches, several reactions are rare|
Remember to always talk to your primary physician before considering any vaccinations. For additional information and advice on travel medicine, vaccinations and much more, check out Passport Health, which I found to be an invaluable resource for this research, as well as Lonely Planet’s South America on a Shoestring travel guidebook.
Tampons will be difficult to attain in some small cities so stocking up in large cities will be important. The same applies to birth control pills, which is generally easier to find in metropolitan areas than in smaller towns. It would be best, however, to bring your own supply or carry the original package so a pharmacist can match you with a local brand. Prices for birth control pills are generally inexpensive. Many countries, such as Brazil, offer the ‘Morning after pill’ for sale and are readily available in most pharmacies or clinics. Visit International Planned Parenthood Federation for much more information, including locations of clinics throughout South America that provide access to contraception and abortions (where legal).