Catching the Right Kind of Island Fever

As the thermometer lingers in the single digits, snow piles up and the cold winter wind chills us to the bone, a tropical vacation becomes more appealing every day. If you’re planning an island escape this winter–or any time of year, for that matter–there are several warnings to heed before you venture to areas of the world where diseases that are rare here can be rampant.

Because the risk for certain diseases varies greatly depending on where you’re going, it’s important to know as much about your itinerary as possible. This is true whether you are traveling with a guided tour or planning your own visit. When you review your itinerary, be sure to consider:

  • Where you will be traveling, including whether you will be in urban or rural areas
  • How long you will visit
  • What season you will visit
  • Lodging conditions (air conditioning, open-air tents, or screened-in house or room)
  • Mode of travel
  • Food
  • Planned activities

Travelers should get vaccinated before visiting certain areas of the world to help protect them from serious illnesses. Travel vaccines are safe, effective ways to help protect travelers from bringing home more than they bargained for. There are a variety of other simple precautions to consider, as well. You can check which vaccinnes are recommended or required by visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Travel Center.

Hand washing is critical, as is carrying around an alcohol-based sanitization gel. It’s also important to know which foods are safe to eat, drinking water that is bottled or boiled to get rid of organisms, and to be careful about other bottled, carbonated drinks.

Some of the nastiest ailments in the world fall under the category of “tropical diseases.” In 2015, the Caribbean became a recognized hub for the Zika Virus, a health threat predominantly for pregnant women. Additionally, Chikungunya is an illness caused by a virus that spreads through mosquito bites. The most common symptoms of chikungunya are fever and joint pain. Other symptoms may include headache, muscle pain, joint swelling, or rash.

Travelers who go to Africa, Asia, parts of Central and South America, islands in the Indian Ocean, Western and South Pacific, and to the Caribbean are at risk. The mosquito that carries chikungunya virus bites primarily during the daytime, both indoors and outdoors, and often lives around buildings in urban areas. There is no vaccine or medicine to prevent chikungunya. The only way to prevent chikungunya is to prevent mosquito bites. That can be difficult, but it is important, as you can get sick after just one bite.

Using insect repellant religiously and liberally, wearing long sleeves and hats, and sleeping under mosquito netting when outdoors or in open conditions are important safety considerations. Specific drugs are used to prevent malaria and should be used by travelers to certain regions.

Other travel-related health risks

While oceanfront dining often means the freshest seafood, in some underdeveloped countries, a lack of sufficient plumbing can lead to waterborne illnesses.

Bivalves such as oysters and clams filter large amounts of water when feeding. If shellfish are living in water that has been contaminated with stool containing the hepatitis A virus, the shellfish may carry the virus. People then may get it when they eat the raw or undercooked shellfish. To reduce the chance of getting sick, make sure that shellfish have been cooked thoroughly.

You also can catch the disease if you drink water or food that’s been contaminated with the stool of someone with the virus. Other ways to get infected with hepatitis A include:

  • Eating fruits, vegetables, or other foods that were contaminated during handling
  • Eating raw shellfish harvested from water that’s got the virus in it
  • Swallowing contaminated ice

Protective measures include getting vaccinated for hepatitis A and B, and making sure your children get vaccinated as well. The CDC recommends the vaccine for all children starting at one year old.

If you’re cooking on your own in foreign countries, practice good hygiene habits such as regular hand washing, especially after using the toilet, after changing a diaper, and before you prepare or consume food. Wash dishes in hot, soapy water or in a dishwasher, and don’t eat or drink anything if you’re worried about how it was prepared. Also, drink bottled water or boil water before drinking it, and avoid drinks made with ice cubes.  Finally avoid raw foods, including unpeeled fruits or vegetables.

Here is a list of vaccine-preventable, travel-related diseases that are not covered by routine adult vaccinations:

  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Typhoid and Paratyphoid Fever
  • Meningococcal disease
  • Yellow Fever
  • Dengue fever
  • Malaria
  • Rabies
  • Japanese Encephalitis

You may need one or more of these vaccines depending on any number of variables. In some cases, proof of vaccination is required before you can obtain a visa. Still, it’s important to discuss preventative steps with your physician relative to your destination.

Many travel immunizations need to be taken in a series of shots given over a period of days or weeks. Plus, vaccines take time to work. Travel health experts recommend giving yourself four to six weeks to meet with a travel health provider about how to plan for your travel and to get any needed travel vaccinations.

If you are taking medications for a condition like diabetes, there may be certain drug interactions you need to be aware of. For example, some drugs may reduce the effectiveness of travel vaccinations. Also be aware that in some countries, you may have trouble filling your maintenance prescriptions, so plan accordingly so you don’t run out.

Finally, the wisdom of any sexual encounter in the Caribbean also needs to be weighed against the very real risks of disease, sexual violence, or worse. The Caribbean has the second-highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world: at least 230,000 people in the region have the disease.

Vacation should be fun, not spent in a hospital bed or filled with worry and anxiety. If you take the proper precautions before you travel and while abroad, chances are you’ll have a fantastic time and the only thing you’ll catch is the travel bug.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!