Travelvax Australia this week joined Australian health authorities in urging parents of Year 12 students to ensure their kids are vaccinated before travelling overseas for schoolies celebrations this month.
Measles and hepatitis A are among the most common health risks for unprotected travellers – of any age.
But, besides getting sick themselves, the thousands of schoolies heading to Asian and Pacific destinations could fuel disease outbreaks on their return to Australia.
More than 100 unvaccinated Australian travellers develop measles or hepatitis A every year while overseas, according to the NSW Director of Communicable Diseases, Dr Vicky Sheppeard.
In 2012, a young adult traveller contracted measles abroad, sparking 170 cases in Australia and threatening the nation’s measles-free status.
Rabies also a risk in Asia
As well as urging students to get the measles vaccine if they haven’t had two documented doses during their life, Dr Sheppeard also warned of the potential for rabies in Asia.
“Anyone visiting Bali or other Asian destinations such as Thailand should be aware of the dangers of being infected with the deadly rabies virus, particularly if planning to visit monkey forests,” she said in a statement.
“Rabies is almost invariably fatal, so if schoolies do get a bite or scratch while in Bali they should wash the wound thoroughly and seek immediate medical attention.”
While most human rabies deaths occur in Asia and result from dog bites, the vast majority of potential exposures involving international visitors are caused by bites and scratches from Asia’s macaque monkeys.
Pack the insect repellent
In Indonesia, animal attacks often occur in tourist areas around temples and the famous Monkey Forest in Ubud, where visitors are encouraged to feed and interact with the free-roaming monkeys.
In the first 8 months of 2015, 337 Australians had received the series of post-exposure rabies vaccinations, which is administered when a person receives a bite or scratch from an animal in a country where rabies occurs. (It is usually impossible to know if the animal is infected with rabies, but it has to be assumed that it could be.)
Of that total, around a third occurred in Bali, reflecting the enduring popularity of the island with Australians. That said, rabies occurs in almost every country of the world.
Dr Sheppeard said travellers should also take steps to avoid mosquito-borne infections, especially the dengue and chikungunya viruses, which are common throughout Asia, the Pacific and other tropical regions of the world. There have been 1455 dengue cases in Australia to date this year, as well as 94 chikungunya infections – most of them contracted in Asia.
There’s no vaccine or specific cure for these two infections, which are spread by banded, day-time biting mosquitoes found in all urban areas. Prevention relies solely on avoiding bites – especially at peak feeding times around dawn and dusk.
Vaccination – a travel investment
Dr Eddy Bajrovic, the Medical Director of Travelvax Australia, also urged parents to ensure their children received sound health advice and any recommended vaccinations before leaving home.
“Young travellers don’t fully appreciate that illness or injury can bring a trip to an abrupt, costly and, sometime, tragic end,” Dr Bajrovic said.
“It is important to remind them that risky behaviour can have severe consequences, particularly in less developed countries where health care may be lacking.
“Vaccinations, insurance and knowing what to do in an emergency are just as important as a passport and a plane ticket.
“Modern vaccines have few side-effects and provide high-level protection. In most cases, this protection will extend to future travel, so they are worth the initial investment.”
A checklist for young travellers
Travelvax Australia has prepared a pre-travel checklist to help schoolies and gap year students stay healthy and safe:
GET VACCINATED: The Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B vaccines are recommended for all young travellers. This year’s Year 12 students were born in 1997 or 1998 and should have been immunised against Hep B as infants. However, while hepatitis A is among the most common vaccine-preventable travel health risks, the Hep A vaccine is not part of the childhood schedule. In addition, typhoid is also likely to be recommended for adventurous young travellers visiting developing regions of Asia or the Pacific, as well as in Africa, the Caribbean, and Central and South America – even those on relatively short stays. Regardless of their age of destination, all travellers should check their immunisation status for polio, measles/mumps/rubella, diphtheria/tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), and have a flu shot as part of their pre-travel medical.
(For a gap year, or volunteer placement or an extended stay, additional vaccinations may be recommended, such as meningococcal meningitis, Japanese encephalitis, cholera, and rabies. Anti-malaria medication may also be advised, depending on the country and season, but the mosquito-borne disease is not a risk in either Bali and Fiji, the 2 most popular schoolies’ destinations.)
GET KITTED OUT: Invest in a travel first-aid kit for attending to blisters, cuts and abrasions. It should include medication for self-treating common ailments like traveller’s diarrhoea, along with medical sharps for emergencies.
INSURANCE A ‘MUST-HAVE’: Hospital treatment and medical evacuation can result in a bill of more than $100,000. Ensure that the policy covers any pre-existing medical conditions and check the fine print for policy exclusions (i.e. you won’t be covered for injuries that occur while under the influence of alcohol or drugs).
DON’T GET STRANDED: Before going out at night, know your transport options and the time the last bus or ferry home leaves. If you are travelling by water, especially at night, know where the life jackets are (even better, put one on).
KNOW YOUR ALCOHOL LIMITS: Getting drunk increases your risk of being injured, robbed or assaulted. As mentioned, your insurance policy may not cover you if you get injured while intoxicated.
REMEMBER, SAFE SEX: Unsafe sex can lead to sexually transmitted infections like HIV, Hep B and C, which can be life-long, even life-threatening. Studies show that 50-70% of casual sexual encounters during travel are unprotected, so young travellers should carry quality condoms with them from Australia. Getting a tattoo or a body piercing can be problematic for blood-borne diseases too.
DON’T USE DRUGS: The risk of personal injury aside, using, buying, or possessing drugs in a foreign country can carry stiff penalties – including a death sentence. As well-documented cases have shown, there’s little your parents, lawyers or the Australian government can do if you get busted.
CARRY JUST WHAT YOU NEED: Don’t carry your passport, lots of cash, all your credit cards, or other valuables to parties. Take only the essentials and leave the rest in the safe at your hotel.
DON’T SET UP A TAB: Paying for drinks as you buy them means you don’t get stung with an exorbitant bill you’ll be forced to pay before being allowed to leave.
BEWARE OF DRINK SPIKING: Drink spiking happens: Don’t accept free drinks from strangers, and don’t leave your drink unattended. If you feel dizzy or sick, tell your friends or the bar staff immediately. If a friend collapses, call for medical help – but don’t leave them alone.
STAY IN TOUCH: Phone or send a text or email regularly to let your family know where you are, especially if you are travelling in a remote or high-risk area. Registering your travel plans with smartraveller makes it easier to find you in an emergency.
TAKE DOWN THIS NUMBER: Enter the number of the Australian government’s 24-hour Consular Emergency Centre in Canberra (+61 2 6261 3305) into your mobile or notebook. Adding any local emergency numbers is a smart idea, too.
When overseas, you’re on your own
Regardless of age, travellers who have a health or legal problem while overseas are, to a large degree, on their own.
The assistance available from Australia’s consular officials overseas is very limited: Consular officials will not pay medical bills and they can’t magically spring Aussies from jail.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Smartraveller website has lots of great advice, information and tips for young travellers and every young travellers should swat up before they go.
Travelvax Australia provides an obligation-free, over-the-phone service on 1300 360 164 (toll-free for landlines) offering travellers of all ages healthy advice for overseas destinations. We can also arrange a one-stop appointment for a pre-travel medical consultation, along with vaccinations or medications recommended.