UW News

April 22, 2010

See a travel medicine doctor before you explore the world

If you are planning a trip overseas, your checklist of preparations will include a passport, visas and foreign currency. It should also include an appointment with a travel medicine doctor, especially for travel in developing countries.

The travel medicine appointment is designed to help you prepare for health risks in the areas you plan to visit. While it is a good idea to discuss your plans with your regular doctor — particularly, if you have concerns about your fitness to travel or need extra supplies of medications — a travel medicine specialist works at a clinic that regularly dispenses vaccines for typhus, yellow fever and Japanese encephalitis, as well as all routine vaccinations.

UW Medicine offers travel medicine appointments and consultations at these locations:

  • Belltown Clinic:  206.443.0400
  • Factoria Clinic:  425.957.9000
  • Hall Health Center on the UW Seattle Campus: 206.685.1011
  • Issaquah Clinic: 425.391.3900
  • Family Medical Center at UWMC Roosevelt: 206.598.4055
  • Woodinville Clinic: 425.485.4100

Even before the visit, you can get started by going to the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Online Health Travel. These sites have valuable resources for international travelers, including a country-by-country list of recommended vaccines, warnings about malaria and other serious diseases, and alerts about certain countries in sub-Saharan Africa and tropical South America where the yellow fever vaccine may be required by international health regulations.

Ideally, the travel appointment should take place at least a month before your departure date, since most vaccines take two to four weeks to be effective. Bring your itinerary and vaccination record so your provider can give you the best advice for your trip.

At the UW Medicine Neighborhood Clinic in Factoria, I see many patients who are traveling to developing countries either for leisure or for work as a missionary or health care provider. Others include individuals returning to their native country for a home or family visit, business travelers, students on school or club programs, and pilots or crew for commercial airline companies who travel internationally. Recently, one young woman came in who will be traveling around the world as a crew member on a sailboat.

During the appointment, we discuss the health risks associated with itineraries that go in and out of malaria zones, adventure travel, high-altitude destinations, cruises and travel in remote areas. If appropriate, I provide vaccines, medications to prevent malaria, and prescriptions for a range of potential problems, such as traveler’s diarrhea (the most predictable travel-related illness), insect bites, altitude sickness, seasickness and jet lag.

Another goal of the appointment is to make sure your routine vaccines are up to date for flu, childhood diseases and tetanus. Although some childhood diseases, such as measles, rarely occur in the United States, they are still common in many parts of the world. This is also a good time for adults to get the vaccine for hepatitis A, a vaccine that offers excellent protection against a disease found in many foreign destinations as well as here in the United States.

Patients leave my office with a one-page summary of recommended precautions, a travel health planner and country-specific information from the CDC. They also know that they should follow these guidelines to stay healthy:

  • Don’t pet stray animals because of the risk for rabies. If you are bitten, seek immediate medical attention.
  • Wear sunscreen and mosquito repellent. Apply sunscreen first, wait 15 to 30 minutes, then apply mosquito repellent.
  • Drink clean water in the form of bottled, filtered or boiled water. 
  • All fruits should be washed and peeled.
  • Remember to wear your seat belt. Car accidents are the leading cause of injury death for travelers.

Certain situations call for additional advice. When traveling with infants on formula, you will need a source of clean water. If road trips are planned, consider bringing a car seat for small children. Pregnant women and nursing mothers should try to avoid travel to a yellow fever area because the live vaccine for yellow fever is not recommended for them. Since natural immunity diminishes over time, people born in developing countries should also be attentive to health risks if they are going home after an absence of more than several years.

A final consideration is that malaria can develop after your trip. Be sure to see your doctor for a fever or any residual illness and mention that you have recently traveled. By taking these precautions, my hope is that you will return home with wonderful memories and only a travel bug for your next overseas adventure.

Pamela Yung, M.D., is a family medicine doctor and travel medicine specialist at the UW Medicine Neighborhood Clinic in Factoria. For more information, call 800-852-8546 or visit www.uwmedicine.org/uwpn.