The top five travel illnesses (and how to avoid them)

Traveller's diarrhoea affects more than 50 per cent of travellers to developing countries and can last for many days.
Traveller's diarrhoea affects more than 50 per cent of travellers to developing countries and can last for many days. Photo: Getty Images

Shall we add it to the list of 'Dumb Ways to Die'? Heading to high risk holiday destinations without vaccinations is about as smart as eating a tube of superglue, but more and more Aussies are doing it.

Analysis of the Department of Health's notifiable diseases data by the comparison company Finder.com.au shows a spike in exotic diseases among returning Australian travellers.

Most of the diseases are preventable, yet it's hardly surprising they're on the rise when research last year showed the number of Australians skipping vaccinations - and presumably also advice - has soared.

The research by vaccine provider Sanofi Pasteur and Lonergan Research estimated that over a five year period, 2.8 million Aussies had travelled to high risk destinations without appropriate vaccinations.

When asked why they did not get the recommended vaccinations, 45 per cent of the 1042 travellers surveyed said they believed vaccines were not required and 33 per cent believed there was no risk of illness.

Clearly, it's time for a refresher in travel health.

With thanks to Dr Tony Gherardin at The Travel Doctor – TMVC, here are five of the most common illnesses being reported by Aussie travellers and how to avoid them.

Traveller's diarrhoea

Suffering factor: 3/5

How to get it: Contaminated food and water. Dr Gherardin says traveller's diarrhoea affects more than 50 per cent of travellers to developing countries and can last for many days.

How to avoid it: While it is impossible to be squeaky clean with everything you eat and drink, sticking to bottled or purified water, freshly-cooked foods and peelable fruit and vegetables can save you a holiday on the loo.

Respiratory tract infections and influenza

Suffering factor: 3/5

How to get it: Standing in queues at airports and sitting on planes are excellent ways to get coughed and sneezed on by travellers from all over the world. It's hard to dodge close confines, so concentrate on the prevention measures.

How to avoid it: Dr Gherardin says all international travellers should have an annual flu jab. "Flu is the most common of the vaccine-preventable diseases and people need to understand that in the tropics, influenza is year-round, not seasonal," he says.

Typhoid

Suffering factor: 4/5

How to get it: Like the more commonly-understood Hepatitis A, typhoid comes from contaminated food and water, particularly in high-risk areas such as India and the Indian sub-continent.

Dr Gherardin says travel health experts are concerned about a recent rise in typhoid cases among Australian travellers, especially as the disease is becoming more drug-resistant and may not respond to the first line of antibiotics.

According to Finder.com.au, there were 148 cases of typhoid among Australians in 2013, up from an average of about 60 per year a decade ago.

How to avoid it: Vaccination.

Measles

Suffering factor: 4/5

How to get it: Health authorities are also concerned about a jump in measles cases, with travellers bringing the disease back from overseas.

Measles is highly contagious and is spread by mucous or saliva droplets, via sneezing, coughing or contaminated surfaces.

Dr Gherardin says there were 158 reported cases of measles in Australia last year and 114 already this year, the majority of which can be linked to overseas travel.

How to avoid it: Many people believe they are vaccinated against measles when they are not fully protected, so it pays to check.

Dr Gherardin says people born between 1966 and 1986 are of particular concern, as they may have received only one vaccination instead of two.

Dengue fever

Suffering factor: 5/5

How to get it: Dengue is transmitted by daytime-biting mosquitoes in the tropics.

Dr Gherardin says these mosquitoes are present in built-up areas such as resorts and cities and can affect any traveller.

How to avoid it: With no vaccination available, the only way to avoid dengue is to avoid getting bitten.

This includes insect repellent, covering up and staying indoors when mosquitoes are bad.

The same prevention measures apply to the little-known Chikungunya virus, which has spread throughout Asia over recent years.

Finder.com.au reports there were 127 cases of Chikungunya among Australian travellers last year; almost six times the number reported in 2012.

Delhi Belly 

India is by far the most common country for Australian travellers to get sick, according to data collected by The Travel Doctor – TMVC.

India accounted for nearly one-fifth of travel illnesses reported to Travel Doctor clinics in the first quarter of 2014, with Vietnam next in line with seven per cent of cases.

Thailand and Indonesia (particularly Bali) were responsible for about five per cent each, with Nepal completing the top five.

More than 50 per cent of travellers reported getting sick or injured while overseas, with more than 40 per cent needing to consult a local doctor or local hospital.

jane.fraser@fairfaxmedia.com.au

How many of the top five illnesses have you experienced in your travels? What has been your method for coping? Post your comments.

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