Adventurous Australians are continuing to put themselves at risk of falling ill during or after overseas travel, with new figures showing less than half (46%) of those visiting at-risk destinations sought health advice before their trip.
Research involving more than 1000 outbound travellers has revealed that many aren’t aware of potential health risks abroad, and carefree attitudes are exposing them to potentially severe diseases.
In fact, at-risk destinations comprise over half of all resident departures from Australia (52%). At-risk destinations are those with a known risk to travellers of contracting infectious diseases that are preventable through vaccinations and other precautions.
Destinations such as South-East Asia and South America are travel hot-spots for Aussies where – for leisure and business travellers alike – there’s a potentially greater risk of illness from food and water-borne diseases, such as typhoid and hepatitis A.
“Australians are known for their love of travel and want to experience the culture and cuisine that these countries have to offer,” said Dr Eddy Bajrovic, the Medical Director of Travelvax Australia.
“But, it can expose them to many potential health risks.
“These can be avoided or prevented with the right knowledge and behaviour, which is why a visit to a travel doctor or GP should be an essential part of planning an overseas holiday.”
1-in-4 travellers fall ill
The survey, conducted by Lonergan Research in May this year, was completed by 1041 Australian travellers. Its key findings included:
- At-risk countries comprise of over half of all overseas travel from Australia (52%).
- Nearly half (49%) of the travellers going to at-risk destinations go unvaccinated.
- 1-in-4 Australians travelling to at-risk destinations fell ill on their last trip, with three quarters saying it negatively affected their trip.
- Half (49%) who got sick believe they caught something from eating and drinking.
- Younger at-risk travellers (18-29) are more likely to have fallen ill.
- 43% of at-risk travellers who fell sick had to seek medical assistance while overseas.
- 1-in-5 Australians drank tap water while overseas.
- Over half (56%) of Australian travellers to at-risk destinations have brushed their teeth with tap water.
- Nearly half (47%) who travelled to an at-risk region has had a drink with ice in it.
Recent NSW Health Department statistics revealed that more than two-thirds of the state’s documented cases of hepatitis A were related to overseas travel – 46% involved travellers themselves, but 23% were through household contact of returned travellers.
Homecoming visits present dangers
One group at higher risk when travelling overseas is VFRs – those Australian residents returning to their country of origin to ‘visit friends and relatives’.
The study revealed nearly 1-in-3 (29%) VFRs wrongly believe they are less likely to get sick because they continue to enjoy some ‘natural immunity’ to local diseases by virtue of being born there.
“Unfortunately, this is not true,” he said.
“What’s more, international and Australian studies show conclusively that migrants travelling overseas to visit visiting family and relatives are at significantly higher risk of illness than any other category of traveller.
“Although they make up only a quarter of outbound travellers, they are heavily over-represented in cases of infectious diseases like hepatitis A and typhoid fever, as well as serious malaria infection requiring treatment in hospital.”
VFRs are at greater risk than other travellers because they:
- Live more like locals than like conventional tourists.
- Often stay longer than the average tourist.
- Frequently spend time in rural areas with poor sanitation, making them more likely to come in contact with common infectious diseases.
- Eat home-cooked meals and drink the local water.
- Are more likely to be staying in malaria-infected areas.
- Have greater exposure to other mosquito-borne diseases like dengue and Chikungunya.
Young travellers more likely to get sick
Dr Bajrovic said 1-in-4 Australians travelling to at-risk destinations fell ill on their last trip.
“And 43% of those had to seek professional medical assistance, with younger travellers more likely to fall ill,” he added.
“It’s often the everyday aspects such as sharing a meal that can cause serious illnesses, with half of travellers (49%) believing they got sick as a result of something they ate or drank.”
Commenting at the release of the survey, celebrity chef and frequent traveller, Adam Liaw said being prepared is the key to ensuring travel isn’t cut short due to contaminated food or drink.
“The cuisines and flavours of different countries are often the best part of travelling.
“However, no matter how often you travel, or even if you are from the country you’re travelling to, there’s no guarantee you’re protected against contaminated food or water. Before I travel overseas, I always speak to my doctor about what precautions I should take.”
While less than half of at-risk Australian travellers follow his lead and visit their GP for travel health advice, almost a quarter (23%) of Australians visiting an at-risk destination got no health information or advice.
It’s never ‘too late’ to see doctor
Dr Bajrovic said all travellers should make an appointment to see a doctor – ideally one experienced in travel health – to discuss and arrange for any recommended or required vaccinations.
“Six weeks is ideal, but closer to departure is still worthwhile because today’s vaccines are not only highly effective, but will build up your immunity to infection and offer some protection during your stay,” he said.
Accelerated schedules are available for some vaccines, while combination vaccines are available against the most common travel-related diseases, including Hep A, Heb B and typhoid.
Dr Bajrovic also advised travellers to:
- Take out appropriate travel health and medical evacuation insurance. “Medicare will not pay any medical or hospital bills you might incur while overseas.”
- Take a first-aid kit suitable for the destination, the length of stay and, if it’s to be shared, the number of people travelling.
Travelling overseas? Call 1300 360 164 during business hours for expert, no-obligation advice or to book a one-stop pre-departure consultation with an experienced team of travel medicine professionals.