How I Avoid Getting Sick Abroad
When traveling, the list of serious ailments of which one must beware seems endless: malaria, bilharzia, dengue fever, rabies, etc. Between the travel doctor, the guidebook, and government travel advisories, it’s a wonder anyone ever leaves the sterility of their own four walls!
A family of six I know recently spent four months traveling overland through West Africa. Within a month, five out of the six of them had contracted malaria. A mere month later, half had relapsed into malarial fevers, with the eldest daughter also developing typhoid fever and hepatitis B back-to-back.
This is the exception I assure you, and not the rule.
With almost a solid decade of African, Asian, and South American travel under my belt, and only one serious illness to show for it, I am proof that it is much harder to fall ill than your doctor or guidebook suggests. Here are my reasons.
Proof #1: I Don’t Take Malaria Medication
For three years now, I have been living and traveling in regions of Africa where malaria poses a serious risk. I have chosen not to take anti-malarial prophylactics for two reasons. First, when I took it for four months while studying abroad in Senegal it made me feel mildly ill throughout; and second, taking this medication long-term is worse for your health than actually getting malaria.
I don’t use a mosquito net or bug spray, either. What’s my method of protection? Covering up in the evening. And despite this rudimentary defense, I haven’t contracted malaria (knock on wood).
Proof #2: I Swim in Infested Waters
The three Great Lakes of Africa – Victoria, Malawi, and Tanganyika – are notorious for being rife with bilharzia. In the past year, I swam in all three, and have logged most of my swimming hours in Lake Malawi, where the risk of bilharzia is greatest. I avoid swimming in the dirty water of big cities and in pools of stagnant water, but otherwise, I bathe where locals bathe. And I am happy to report that I remain bilharzia-free.
Proof #3: I Eat What I Want to Eat
The old travel adage, “peel it, boil it, cook it or toss it” doesn’t bode well with me. As a vegetarian/health-freak/food-connoisseur who loves fresh strawberries and tossed salads, I refuse to limit my diet to cooked vegetables and a few peel-able fruits. Instead, after visiting the local market I rinse my produce in water with a touch of bleach, which supposedly kills harmful bacteria.
I also eat in sketchy, dirty local restaurants. I can’t help it. The food tastes great, and the atmosphere is even better. Sure, I’ve had periodic bouts of mildly upset stomach, but what traveler hasn’t? Getting to eat what I want is worth a little tummy ache from time to time.
[Semi] Proof #4: I Drink Local Water
Rather than buying expensive and polluting plastic bottles of mineral water, I use a portable water filter (Katadyn, a reputable Swiss brand) to pump local water clean.
I haven’t always been so careful, however. I used to drink unfiltered tap water. If the local people drank the water, I drank it. If it looked clear and tasted fine, I gulped it down worry-free. And in most cases, this approach worked just fine. Ironically, it was while living on a farm in Zimbabwe, where I’d drunk the borehole (deep well) water for over a year without problems, that I fell sick.
Giardiasis is a nasty illness that left me nauseous, bloated, gassy, feverish, and weak for five whole weeks.
It turned out that a carcass of a dead animal had fallen into the borehole and infected the water with the parasite that made me so sick I even contemplated flying home to Canada. Then I found out that giardiasis is present even in Canada. That put things into perspective for me.
And, all that is this point of me advertising my health triumphs and failures over the World Wide Web. It’s not to boast (and it’s certainly not to worry my mother – I’m fine, Mom!). It’s to put things into perspective. Health risks are everywhere, even in places we deem safe. Even in our own hometowns. And, falling ill with yellow or dengue fever, malaria, or bilharzia, is harder than you think. My own record of carelessness during a decade of constant travel surely illustrates that.
So go! Travel! Take the leap out into the wide world! Take reasonable precautions yes, but don’t let paranoia or fear of exotic diseases prevent you from seeing the world.