Posted on August 06, 2018

While the global incidence rate for the Zika virus has decreased when compared to this time last year, Dr. Muna Al Maslamani, Medical Director of Hamad Medical Corporation’s (HMC) Communicable Disease Center (CDC), says residents planning to travel to countries with active transmission of the virus should continue to take precautions.

“The Zika virus, along with malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, and West Nile virus are primarily spread through mosquito bites. These are preventable diseases. If you are traveling to a country where Zika or any of these mosquito-borne diseases are endemic, it is important to speak with a travel specialist and have a proper risk assessment,” said Dr. Al Maslamani.

Dr. Al Maslamani says an individual’s risk of contracting a travel-related illness is dependent on the destination and the individual. She says not all vaccinations are required for every individual and that personal medical history, duration of travel, and planned activities will determine an individual’s risk. She says while there is no commercially available vaccine for vector-borne diseases such as malaria and Zika, travelers can take perceptions. “A travel specialist can help determine if it is appropriate to take malaria prophylaxis pills and can provide advice on steps that can be taken to help avoid mosquito bites, such as wearing long sleeved tops and trousers, applying anti-insect cream (containing a 30-50% DEET concentration), and using anti-mosquito nets during sleep,” says Dr.  Al Maslamani.

She recommends visiting a travel clinic and meeting with a travel medicine expert at least four weeks prior to travel. She says this is especially important for individuals with pre-existing health conditions, in particular, chronic diseases. Dr. Al Maslamani says each year only a small number of residents receive medical attention at HMC for serious travel-related illnesses, with most patients being treated for minor conditions such as respiratory infections, fever, diarrhea, and skin rashes. However, she says it is important for residents to know what to do should they become ill while traveling. “Getting injured or becoming ill while traveling in a foreign country can be a frightening and overwhelming experience. Taking a few simple steps such as checking with your medical insurance carrier to determine if you are covered while traveling abroad and knowing the location of reputable medical facilities and your country’s embassy or consulate can help you to be prepared for a personal medical emergency,” said Dr.  Al Maslamani.

Dr.  Al Maslamani recommends individuals who have a pre-existing medical condition carry a letter from their primary healthcare provider describing the condition and any prescription medicines they are taking. She says all medications should be clearly labeled and in their original containers. She says while rest and proper hydration and nutrition are generally sufficient for illnesses that have mild symptoms, immediate medical attention may be necessary if an individual experiences bloody diarrhea, diarrhea and a fever that goes above 102 degrees Fahrenheit, or experiences flu-like symptoms while visiting a malaria-endemic country. She says immediate medical attention is also required if scratched or bitten by an animal, if injured as a result of a car accident, or if an individual is sexually assaulted.

Dr. Al Maslamani says the incubation period for different viruses and illnesses varies and the symptoms of most mild travel-related illnesses last only 24 hours. She says there are steps travelers can take to help lower their risk of becoming ill. “The key to minimizing your chance of getting sick is to combat risk factors. Good hand hygiene is essential and can dramatically reduce your chances of developing diarrhea, gastroenteritis, flu, and even hepatitis A. Many travelers carry small bottles of hand sanitizing gel but this should not replace hand washing. When possible, wash your hands with soap under hot water for at least thirty seconds before and after eating and always after going to the toilet. When you can’t be sure of the purity of drinking water, opt for bottled water, ensuring the bottle seal is intact,” said Dr.  Al Maslamani.

Food contamination is one of the biggest causes of traveler’s diarrhea and gastrointestinal problems. Dr.  Al Maslamani recommends being mindful when eating raw fruit and vegetables, food that has been left out, food that is shared, such as in buffets, and undercooked, raw, or reheated food, especially meat, fish, or rice. If traveling to a country or region with a hot or tropical climate, she recommends drinking up to eight glasses of water a day to prevent dehydration. She says it is also important to protect yourself from the sun, using a minimum of SPF30 sunscreen and covering up with loose clothing, sunglasses, and a hat. “Dehydration can set in very quickly, and that can lead to more serious conditions such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which if left unattended can become a medical emergency,” says Dr. Al Maslamani.

Opened in 2017, the CDC’s Travel Clinic provides travelers with counseling, vaccinations, and other preventative measures before they travel. It also provides assessment and medical care for travelers returning with travel-related infections. To book an appointment for a travel assessment, the Travel Clinic can be contacted on 4025 4003.