When that bell rings for the last time this school year, kids will scatter for vacations, family visits and school trips. For those traveling internationally, here are some tips for keeping children safe and healthy.
Research your destination
After you book your flights and hotel rooms and pick which tourist destinations you're going to hit, it's time to do some of the less-fun research. Find out which diseases are common at your destination and which of those are likely to be contracted by unsuspecting tourists. Check where it is and isn't safe to drink the water. And be prepared with food, activities and kid-friendly stops along the way.
Go to the doctor before your trip
A surprise trip to the hospital in a foreign country isn't on anyone's dream vacation schedule. To avoid such an unfortunate change in plans, make an appointment with a doctor before taking off. Visit your pediatrician or children's hospital, armed with your itinerary and your research on the potential risks that lie beyond the airport. Clinics like the International Travel Clinic at Blank Children's Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa, will have information on diseases and risks around the world, but it's not a bad idea to have some information before the appointment. Dr. Luis Castagnini, who works with the International Travel Clinic, says he has treated kids after they've returned from international trips with illnesses, but he's never had anyone who visited before departure come back ill.
Common diseases to avoid
The International Travel Clinic mostly treats families who are heading to Asia and Africa, but Dr. Castagnini has helped people traveling to other continents too. Malaria, which is found around the world, is the No. 1 disease discussed at the clinic. Dr. Castagnini also says yellow fever and typhoid fever are common, and he always talks to parents about avoiding travelers' diarrhea. To avoid malaria, patients are required to start taking medication a few days before their departure and continue taking it throughout their trip. Vaccines for diseases such as yellow fever and typhoid fever have to be administered by accredited offices well in advance of departure, so check with your doctor early.
Visiting family in the homeland? Take the kids to the doctor anyway.
Even if you grew up in a country where certain diseases are common and you may have already built up immunity, your kids are still susceptible. It's just as important to make an appointment with your doctor to make sure you're doing everything you can to prevent illness. It can be hard to take all the necessary precautions when you're going home. Dr. Castagnini, who is originally from Peru, knows that personally. But he stresses that when you're taking someone else to a new country with new diseases and risks, it's important to take every possible step to keep everyone healthy, especially when that someone is a child.
Don't forget about developed nations
According to Dr. Castagnini, people visiting developed nations, especially in Europe, are less concerned about disease and don't make appointments at the clinic as often. While it's understandable—it's pretty unlikely that you'll come down with malaria in Germany—other diseases need to be taken into account. Many countries in Europe don't have the strict vaccination policies and regulations found in the United States, and France and Ireland have recently had outbreaks of measles. Children are more likely to catch the airborne disease and bring it back to the United States. Even if you don't think you're taking your family to a disease-ridden place, check your kids' vaccination records and consider scheduling an appointment anyway.
What to do while you're there
In countries where malaria is prevalent, Dr. Castagnini recommends using Deet mosquito repellent and staying indoors in rural areas when mosquitos are active, even if you're taking anti-malaria medication. He also recommends avoiding water in certain areas. Although the water at resorts and in touristy areas is generally safe, don't forget about ice. Ice in your daughter's Coke might still give her travelers' diarrhea. Use common sense when it comes to things like water and exotic foods. If you're not sure about its source, avoid it. Don't forget to take your doctor's contact information with you in case anyone in the family gets sick. Doctors at the International Travel Clinic provide parents with an email address to use during their trips. See if your family physician or local clinic will do the same for you.
Don't let talk of malaria and unsafe water scare you away from exploring the globe. Just remember, the best way to keep your family healthy on an international trip is to prepare before you leave. Clinics like the International Travel Clinic are a great place to start. Check with your local children's hospital and find out if similar services are offered, or make an appointment with your pediatrician or family physician. Pharmacies can provide your family with the necessary medications, but it's best to sit down with an expert and make sure you're doing everything you need to do. So get those shots, stock up on bug spray, and have a great trip!