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IT'S the number one fallacy of overseas business travel: The shorter the trip, the lower the health risk – even if you're a frequent flyer. "I hear that one a lot," said Dr Ed Bajrovic, the Medical Director of Travelvax Australia.

"It's generally true that a longer stay, especially in a developing country, brings a higher health risk.

"But, the more time you spend overseas – even on short trips of less than a week – the higher your risk of getting sick.

"It's simply the law of averages. Sooner or later, you'll be unlucky and some bug in dodgy food or water, an airborne virus, or an infected mozzie will have your name on it."

He was commenting on a survey which revealed that almost three quarters (72%) of Australians travelling overseas on business were not vaccinated, despite frequently travelling to Asia and other destinations where diseases such as Hepatitis A, typhoid, rabies and malaria are common.

Health a 'moral obligation' for employers

Commissioned by pharmaceutical company, sanofi pasteur, researchers surveyed 1042 Australian travellers, and found:

– 93% believe their company was morally obliged to take reasonable precautions to protect their health during business travel overseas.

– 87% believe their company should be responsible for the costs associated with illness contracted while they were travelling for work.

– 76% would consider legal action if their employer did not cover illness-related costs.

– Of those who received vaccinations before their last business trip, 23% organised their own shots.

After interviewing, the survey data was weighted to the latest population estimates sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Insurance policy just first step

According to ABS figures, around 1.7 million Australians travel overseas each year for business. The top 5 destinations for our business travellers are: Hong Kong (35%), Singapore (32%), China (28%), Malaysia (22%), and Thailand (22%).

Asked to nominate what their employer should provide before sending them overseas, survey respondents listed travel insurance (70%) as most important, followed by vaccinations (56%), travel safety advice (51%), health advice (46%), and a medical check-up (41%).

"It's said that if you can't afford insurance, you can't afford to travel," Dr Bajrovic said.

"Insurance is essential in case of serious illness or accident and the policy should include medical repatriation, but companies need to think beyond the insurance policy and ensure their travelling employees are properly prepared in every respect.

"That includes a pre-travel medical check-up, personalised illness prevention advice, vaccinations and medications, and a well-stocked travel medical kit."

Practical prevention could save schedule

Dr Bajrovic said it is a myth that travellers staying only days in reputable hotels don't get sick from food and water illnesses, respiratory infections, insect-borne illness, and STIs.

Practical knowledge about how to prevent travel-related illnesses like traveller's diarrhoea, jet lag and deep vein thrombosis is essential for executives expected to perform at their professional peak soon after they arrive.

"Even travel to destinations in developed countries can involve long-haul flights and deep vein thrombosis (DVT) can be of particular concern for women on the contraceptive pill who smoke," Dr Bajrovic said.

"However, even the wrong choice of food and beverage could result in a bout of traveller's diarrhoea which could mean major disruptions to tightly-arranged business meetings."

Many companies unaware of 'duty of care'

Generally speaking, larger companies were thorough in ensuring that their employees are medically well prepared for each new overseas assignment. Smaller companies were less aware that they have a duty of care to protect the health of their staff.

"It's a matter of cost for some companies," Dr Bajrovic said.

"They haven't factored medical costs in to the project, so it becomes an issue when they become aware of their obligation. Others are simply not aware that they are legally and morally obliged to provide a safe workplace – wherever their employees might be working."

As well as travel medicine, Dr Bajrovic has a special interest in occupational health and safety.

"I recently spoke with the executives of a company that had no travel medicine policies in place," he said.

"The firm had not vaccinated any of its employees, even though they were sending them to places like high-altitude areas of Peru."

Long-term recovery from common diseases

He said an organisation's key people are generally the ones entrusted with overseas assignments. It's no co-incidence that these are the very people a company can least afford to lose - even briefly.

Some firms see travel as a perk and fail to realise that in developing countries some common diseases can be life-threatening – even fatal. That's especially true in emerging economies like India and China, as well as other regions of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

"Hepatitis A and typhoid are passed on in faecally contaminated food or water," he said.

"While most people usually recover fully from Hep A , it can be a very debilitating illness in adults and carries an adult mortality rate of 1-2 %.

"It's not uncommon to be bedridden or unable to return to work for up to 6-9 months, then take even more time to gradually ease their way back to full time work."

"Rates of typhoid have doubled in the last 5 years in travellers returning from Asia, particularly India. Already this year we've had 101 cases."

Mosquitoes pose disease risk in cities, too

Dr Bajrovic said every traveller needs to be aware of the serious health risk mosquitoes present, including business travellers. Mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever and Chikungunya fever are present in much of Pacific, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

"During a brief business trip, the risk of exposure to malaria might be so low that malaria prevention medication would not be recommended," he said.

"But, that doesn't mean that there's no risk to business travellers from mosquitoes. In the tropics, dengue and Chikungunya are found in the heart of major cities and are transmitted by daytime-biting mosquitoes.

"So, there are times when business travellers may need to apply repellent and take measures to avoid bites, such as when they out getting some exercise by walking before breakfast or if they are outdoors in the evening after work."

For more advice on travelling for work, or to arrange a pre-travel medical consultation and recommended vaccinations, call Travelvax Australia's travel health service on 1300 360 164 (local call from landlines).