International travel? Take tropical precautions

Include insect repellent when packing bags, especially when traveling to tropical or Third World regions. PHOTO: Linda Breazeale | MSU Ag Communications

Some travelers may be afraid of lions, tigers and bears, but the real health threats come from mosquitoes, ticks and fleas.

David Buys, health specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said people traveling outside the United States should consult doctors, local health departments, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for disease risks and recommendations.

“It’s very important to consult your health care provider if traveling to tropical or Third World regions,” he said. “In addition to vaccinations, travelers should not neglect bug protection while they are on trips overseas.”

Buys encouraged people to mark a calendar or keep a travel journal noting the dates of any bites or rashes that may develop while on trips or even at home after returning.

“Here in Mississippi, the odds are in your favor that a single bite will not lead to a life-threatening illness, but health professionals should still be made aware of any history of tick or mosquito exposure if rashes or flu-like symptoms develop,” Buys said.

Jerome Goddard, Extension entomology professor, said millions of deaths occur worldwide each year from diseases such as malaria, dengue, chikungunya, encephalitis viruses and plague. Several are more common among populations living in or traveling to tropical regions. Americans should maintain their guard to protect themselves.

“Malaria is common for travelers,” Goddard said. “Mosquitoes transmit the disease agent for malaria, which is the No. 1 bug disease in the world. All other insect diseases pale in comparison to malaria with about 300 million cases a year and 1 million deaths.”

Goddard said malaria does not commonly spread in the United States, but a significant number of cases are imported every year.

“If someone is going on a trip to Africa, Southeast Asia or Central or South America, he or she should take malaria preventative medications to protect themselves,” he said.

Most insect-related headlines in the United States results from cases of West Nile virus and the new chikungunya, both spread by mosquitoes.

“Encephalitis viruses, such as West Nile and St. Louis virus, create flu-like symptoms, including fever, headache and in severe cases, delirium, coma and death,” he said. “Although chikungunya is not usually deadly, it has similar flu-like symptoms and causes very painful joints.”

Chikungunya, which means “contorted,” started its most recent advance in Southeast Asia about 10 years ago and is now widespread in the Caribbean. A few locally acquired cases have been reported in Florida.

Goddard said mosquito-carried dengue fever is more common for people going on cruises to the Caribbean.

Plague is carried by infected fleas but is very rare in the U.S. No cases have been reported east of the Mississippi River.

Goddard said ticks -- which are arthropods, not insects -- are also serious disease vectors.

“Lyme disease is actually more common in Europe than in the United States,” he said. “Extra precautions should be taken when hiking to protect yourself against ticks.”

One common symptom of Lyme disease is a bull’s-eye rash around the spot where the infected tick attached to the person.

“Lyme is rarely fatal, but Rocky Mountain spotted fever can become fatal very quickly,” he said. “This tick-borne disease occurs both in North and South America.”

Goddard said the first step in protecting against one of these illnesses is to wear repellents and avoid areas and times when disease carriers are most active, which is usually mornings and evenings.

To decrease the chance of tick bites, wear light-colored clothing to make it easier to see and remove ticks before they attach. Wear long-sleeved shirts and closed-toe shoes, and tuck pant legs into socks.

“You can spray repellents that contain permethrin on your clothing to discourage them,” he said. “Apply repellents containing DEET to skin, but wash them off as soon as you return indoors. Infected ticks are so rare that odds favor safe outcomes after a tick bite.”

Buys said if a person experiences a tick bite, the best thing to do is mark the date on a calendar.

“If you get a mysterious illness within three weeks of a tick bite, let doctors know about the tick,” he said. “Most tick diseases are easily treatable if diagnosed early. Certain antibiotics work well, but doctors need to know it could be a tick-related illness.

“Always let your health care provider know if you have traveled outside your area or have experienced any unusual bites or rashes,” Buys said.

Linda Breazeale | MSU Ag Communications

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