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Ebola in West Africa, A(H7N9) in China, MERS-CoV in the Middle East, and Chikungunya in the Caribbean – they’ve been among the major global health issues of the year.

Each has captured headlines, causing fear among locals and apprehension among travellers.
And, with good reason. Although their transmission rates have been relatively low, Ebola, MERS, H7N9 have resulted in high death rates, while Chikungunya has swept through the Caribbean and, more recently, into Central and South America.
Fuelling concern for travellers has been the lack of an effective vaccine or treatment medication for any of these potentially deadly diseases.
For travellers heading to effected regions, here’s an update on the current situation and some simple illness prevention advice.

Chikungunya virus

Risk for travellers – RISING
Based on official figures, the tally of Chikungunya confirmed and suspected cases rose sharply to 264,444, including 21 deaths, last week amid further signs that the disease is spreading from the Caribbean into South and Central America. A large number are unreported while more infected travellers are carrying the mosquito-borne disease back into North America and Europe each week, raising the risk of localised outbreaks and ongoing transmission.
How Chikungunya is spread: Just like Dengue fever, Chikungunya is spread by infected females of two species of mosquitoes – Aedes albopictus and Aedes aegypti. Distinguished by distinctive white bands, the mosquitoes live close to people and feed throughout the day – particularly around dawn and dusk.
The symptoms: Although generally milder than dengue, the typical symptoms of Chikungunya are acute joint pain with a rash. Fatal cases are rare, but painful joints may persist for weeks – even months.
Who’s at risk? Anyone not taking precautions to prevent bites is at risk of mozzie bites and possible infection.
If you’re travelling to the Caribbean (or any tropical destination): Applying an effective, tropical-strength repellent to exposed skin is the best form of protection against mosquitoes and other biting insects. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine or prevention medication for either Chikungunya or dengue. Read more about Chikungunya and read our tips for avoiding insect bites

Ebola virus disease

Risk for travellers – LOW
While West Africa’s first-ever Ebola outbreak has now claimed 467 lives among 759 cases in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, the risk to travellers remains low. The WHO is concerned about the potential for outbreaks in neighbouring countries. (Read the latest update from the WHO).
How Ebola is spread: Ebola can only be passed on through direct contact with blood or other bodily fluids from infected people or animals. (Ebola is NOT transmitted through the air like influenza or measles, nor transferred from hard surfaces.)
Who’s at risk? Only those in close contact with an infected person displaying symptoms can be infected.
If you’re travelling to West Africa: Be thorough with personal hygiene, wash your hands regularly, avoid direct contact with blood or bodily fluids, and don’t engage in unprotected sex.

A(H7N9) avian influenza

Risk for travellers – LOW
Since the first human cases in 2013, there have been 440 cases and 155 deaths from Influenza A(H7N9) bird flu – almost all of them in China. While the second wave of infections has now tapered off, experts are predicting more cases during the coming (northern) summer because the virus is still circulating at low levels, according to the WHO’s latest update.
How it’s spread: Experts agree the A(H7N9) virus does not pass from person to person easily. The risk to travellers is low because most cases have been linked to handling poultry, or from indirect contact in places where infected poultry has been kept or slaughtered, such as live bird markets.
How to avoid it: There is currently no vaccine to prevent this strain. To avoid infection travellers visiting areas where outbreaks are occurring should avoid: Touching birds, pigs, or other animals – alive or dead; Visiting bird or poultry markets, and farms; Eating food that isn’t served hot and fully cooked, as well as soft-boiled or raw eggs, dishes containing blood, food from street stalls.
If visiting China: If you are visiting an area where cases have or are occurring you should: Wash your hands often using soap and water (or, if not available, use hand sanitiser containing at least 60% alcohol); Avoid touching your face unless you’ve cleaned your hands; Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing; Avoid close contact , such as kissing, hugging, or sharing eating utensils or cups, with a sick person.

MERS-CoV

Risk for travellers – LOW
Based on the latest WHO update, there have been 707 laboratory-confirmed cases of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and at least 252 related deaths, mainly in Saudi Arabia* and neighbouring countries. Like Ebola and bird flu, MERS-CoV presents a low risk to travellers.
How it’s transmitted: Scientists are still not certain how the virus is transmitted, but it may be passed on to humans from animals, in particular camels, and from direct contact with an infected person.
Who’s at risk: Until MERS-CoV is better understood, the WHO advises that anyone who is immunocompromised, or has diabetes, renal failure, or chronic lung disease may be at higher risk of severe illness. They should take particular care to avoid close contact with animals, particularly camels, when visiting farms, markets, or animal enclosures where the virus may be circulating.
To avoid risk of infection: Everyone visiting Saudi Arabia should adopt measures such as regular hand washing before and after touching animals and avoiding contact with sick animals, observing food hygiene practices, and avoid drinking raw camel milk or camel urine, or eating only well-cooked meat.
How to avoid MERS: Experts advise that simple precautions will prevent infection – as well as colds, flu, traveller’s diarrhoea, and other illnesses. Most importantly, to prevent germs spreading, wash your hands often with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser, after using the toilet, and before eating or touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Close contact with a sick person should also be avoided.
Being up-to-date with any routine immunisations or vaccinations recommended for your destinations will help you stay healthy overseas. Call Travelvax Australia’s free advisory service on 1300 360 164 for country-specific advice and see your Travelvax doctor or GP at least 4–6 weeks before departure.
* NB – Muslims from across the globe will travel to Saudi Arabia in October to attend the annual Hajj celebrations. Because of the ongoing presence of MERS, several countries have advised pilgrims to forego travel this year. As a precaution, Saudi Arabia recommends that certain people avoid making a pilgrimage, including: people over 65 years old; children under 12; pregnant women; people with chronic diseases (such as heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, or respiratory disease); people with weakened immune systems, or with cancer or a terminal illness.

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