Our trip to South America is coming up soon (we leave March 13) and one of the final things we have had to do was to get the recommended vaccinations. I went to my local Kaiser travel clinic yesterday for an appointment with a registered nurse named Theresa, the “Travel Nurse”.
Who gets excited to go to the doctor, much less on a visit that likely will require multiple painful shots in the arm? Well, me I guess! Upon entering the office I was excited by the world maps on the wall disease risk across the globe. I was also excited to discuss our trip plans and think about the exciting destinations others in the waiting room were off to.
Vaccinations and medications
Theresa entered the countries we are planning to visit to into a database called Travax, which compiled and printed out a very detailed of disease risk across the region. We’re going to Peru, Chile and Easter Island, most of the risk for mosquito-borne illness comes from low-land rural areas in Peru, particularly the Amazon region.
Based on our review of the information, she decided to give me the following vaccinations:
- Hepatitis A (first dose—if you get a second dose after 6 months, you will be protected for life)
- Hepatitis B (first dose–if you get two more doses after 1 and 6 months, you will be protected for life)
- Typhoid Fever (lasts for 3 years)
- Yellow Fever (optional for places we know we are visiting, but recommended because our itinerary is not finalized and may include a venture into the Amazon in Peru and/or Bolivia. I was oddly eager to get it, because it lasts for 10 years and I feel, in some small way, it helps to pave the way for future trips to exotic destinations—“yellow fever, no problem!”)
I was already current on my tetanus/diphtheria/pertussis (Tdap) shot, but that is recommended for all travelers as well.
Malaria risk is not high in this region, occurring in isolated areas of Peru and Bolivia, so she figured I’d be okay without medication, by practicing mosquito avoidance. Same goes for Dengue Fever, which occurs on Easter Island
The nurse also recommended I get the regular flu shot, consider getting an prescription from my physician for an oral antibiotic (in case of serious travelers’ diarrhea) and to purchase some over the counter Immodium to alleviate the symptoms
I found an interesting tip in the travel health and safety brochure that she gave me, for avoiding travelers’ diarrhea: “Consider taking Pepto-bismol (2 tablets, 4 times a day) to prevent travelers’ diarrhea if you will be traveling less than 3 weeks in a developing country and cannot afford to have your trip interrupted or travel plans altered because of illness. Pepto-bismol may help prevent more than half of all case of traveler diarrhea.”
Interesting idea, that Pepto could help to prevent food-borne illness if taken in this manner. Unfortunately, if you take Pepto at that rate for 21 days that is 168 tablets of the drug, not to mention, most likely constant occurrence of the unpleasant side effect of black tongue. I think I’ll be skipping this, though it’s something to try for a day or two if I find myself eating anything particularly questionable. (Theresa also told me not eat anything from a street-food vendor, but I’m not willing to miss out on that!)
The literature she gave me had some useful tips to reduce your attractiveness to mosquitoes:
- Use unscented deodorants, lotions and soaps and fragrance-free shampoos (I hadn’t thought about this and was just planning to bring our normal products)
- Run the clothing you are bringing through two wash cycles without detergent (apparently soap residue that remains in every load can attract more mosquitoes). This made me remember an interesting article I read by a washing machine repairman who said most people use far more laundry detergent they need and his proof was the soap bubbles you’ll see if you do a load without adding detergent.
- Use an insect repellent, even during the day in the Amazon region and Easter Island—the literature specifically recommended a brand called Ultra-thon. I checked it out on Amazon and it has great reviews, lasts for 12 hours and it’s 2 oz. size is small enough for our carry-on only travel plans.
Take proper precautions and you’ll be fine
It makes me sad when I hear people are afraid of leaving the US because they are afraid of tropical disease. Seriously, you’re at much greater risk of dying in a car accident at home than contracting a rare disease in a developing country. Still, it’s important to be smart, educate yourself about your destinations, and take some minimal steps to reduce your risk–you’ll be just fine!