photo courtesy of Mei-Ling McNamara

Traveling is a calculated risk. Undoubtedly, the 21st century has allowed us to travel with greater ease, awareness and the miracle of modern medicine, but there are still unforeseen perils that can systematically sap the best of travelers.

Traveling is a calculated risk. Undoubtedly, the 21st century has allowed us to travel with greater ease, awareness and the miracle of modern medicine, but there are still unforeseen perils that can systematically sap the best of travelers. You might count yourself among the lucky ones: protected by a combination of street smarts, good fortune and some strong genes. But heed this warning: do not underestimate the debilitating power of bacteria, bush taxis or non-pasteurized milk.

You might call me a fatalist, but I prefer to think of myself as a realist. After a significant amount of time traversing a handful of continents, it would probably be the honorable thing for me to do to turn my body over to science. I have picked up my fair share of mysterious rashes, bone breaks, village viruses and abrupt fevers. I have more parasites and incalculable bacteria swimming in my bloodstream and floating through my digestive tract that I care to mention. However, I like to think that this is part of the risk of traveling, and it is a trade-off that I am prepared to make every time.

So, in that spirit, a few pieces of advice that might help you before you take that trip:

Before You Go

You cannot always prevent bad things from happening, but you can take measures to lessen the pain.

1. Visit the Doctor or Dentist …or Wish You Had – Get a check-up before you go, and take care of any minor aches and pains that may only become worse by intense travel. This comes from someone who received a root canal without anesthesia, was evacuated for rabies exposure, and contracted falcipirum – the early stages of virulent cerebral malaria. You cannot always prevent bad things from happening, but you can take measures to lessen the pain. Rushing to a local hospital or dentist, where you may run into language trouble, dubious medical instruments and a possible mis-diagnosis can be a nightmare. Though it may make for a colorful retelling later, trust me, it’s really not funny at the time. To make sure you have all of your injections before you go to and an update on the health situation in the country you are planning to visit, go to the World Health Organization travel site at: http://www.who.int/ith/en/

2. Real Risk-Takers Get Travel Insurance – Ranging from the most basic of coverage to the most extensive, buying travel insurance is one of the wisest things you can do before you leave. Unforeseen illnesses, tropical diseases, fractures, or worse…if you are in the hospital for any length of time, or if you need to be repatriated back to your home country for surgery, the small fee you pay per month can save you a massive medical bill later. If you are still unconvinced, consider this story that happened to a close friend: she was in a serious vehicle accident on a well-paved road in Madagascar, and had to be evacuated via helicopter for emergency surgery. The price tag for the 30-minute trip: $10,000 – not including treatment. A good travel insurance organization to check out is http://www.worldnomads.com that gives decent coverage for any type of traveler.

3. Stock Up Your Medical Kit – You don’t have to take the entire Red Cross disaster kit with you, but bringing along some basic supplies can stop minor injuries from becoming bigger problems. Look for things you might be hard-pressed to find in your visiting country. I am not necessarily talking about sutures here (unless you are prepared to sew up your own arm, or somebody else’s), but I do recommend bringing along extra needles, syringes, malaria medication (in tropical environs), hydrogen peroxide, a course of antibiotics for stomach bugs, re-hydration sachets and Band-Aids (plasters). There are many travel sites that give comprehensive and informative lists on what to pack in your medical kit.

A good site to check out is: http://goafrica.about.com/od/healthandsafety/a/firstaid.htm. A note: I have been to many hospitals in Africa where they have no needles. You heard me correctly. They have no needles. I’ve single-handedly stocked a hospital with my own needles. Bring your own as a precautionary measure, so as to ensure that they have not been re-used.

In-Country

If you are not a professional health care worker, it is best not pretending.

4. Do Not Self-Diagnose or Self-Medicate – If you are not a professional health care worker, it is best not pretending. If you buy medicine at a local clinic, only do so with the full knowledge of your illness and a prescription from a qualified physician. It is a lot easier to get serious pharmaceutical drugs over the counter in developing countries, so be warned before knocking back some drug you are unfamiliar with. For one, you may not know the correct dosage, and one misread word in the instructions could have serious consequences. Closely monitor fevers or any strange, new pains. If they get worse, tell someone. “Toughing it out” in the field when you could have something serious is just not clever in any situation. Come clean with any medical problems you might have with friends or doctors, whether pre-existing or newly formed. It could mean the difference between life and death.

Green Monkey, Senegal

5. Location, Location, Location – A big city may give you access to immediate medical care, but the situation is altogether different in the remote countryside. If you plan to be gone for more than a few weeks, consider taking a basic first-aid course before you leave, and bring along a medical kit for treatable wounds. One of my favorite travel medical books I like to take along is Expedition Medicine by David Warrell, which gives medical advice when traveling in any extreme environment in the world. It also has excellent tips on preparation and preventative measures to take before heading into remote zones.

Another book that is a favorite among the US Peace Corps is Where There Is No Doctor by David Werner. Informative, mildly paranoid-inducing, but excellent in charting fevers, explaining illnesses and breaking down the contents of certain medicines. However, please see the Don’t Self-Diagnose tip as a reminder to use this as a guide only, or you might convince yourself you have a rare tropical disease when it is really just a reaction to bad eggs.

The Buddy System – There’s a good chance if you travel for any length of time that you’ll end up in a clinic or hospital somewhere. That’s life, but it is a good idea to bring along a friend. They can help you make sure to take all relevant information with you to the hospital, including your passport, credit card, local currency, list of injections and medical history. They can also help serve as translator, evaluator of hygienic practices, moral support or general comic relief.

If I hadn’t had my friend Gerry with me in a Madagascar hospital, I might have never recognized that the guy giving me my rabies injection was the same man who fried donuts in the market. If I didn’t bring my friend Owen along with me for my root canal, the dentist may have never known the anesthesia wasn’t working. It’s all par for the course I guess, but if you can take the proper precautions, you may save yourself a little less pain, and a few more days, out on the road.

Happy travels.