Safer Travel from the Coronavirus to Crocodiles: With some constant media commentary focused on the coronavirus, it can be hard to figure out how to travel safely. In addition, it can be really disturbing with quarantines of millions of people, including those on pleasure cruises now confined to cabins (worse yet those with inside cabins!)
With this growing concern daily over the coronavirus, safety and health issues are a valid consideration, especially when going abroad. Although I always go to a travelers’ clinic before leaving home, I still found a real surprise on a 4 day island vacation. I arrived in the midst of a previously unknown epidemic in Santiago, Cape Verde, off the coast of Senegal. As I left the plane, a fellow passenger cautioned me to “Be careful … of the cholera!” Not speaking Portuguese, I was in luck, I thought, in finding a hotel staff member who spoke English and could tell me exactly what was going on. When I asked “How bad REALLY is the cholera?”, he replied “Oh, so you would like a sandwich!” At that point, I realized no one understood me, and I would have to figure out the best way to stay safer until my flight out.
Luckily, the Internet made it easy to find information on the best ways to avoid getting sick. However, be aware that there can be misinformation circulating as is said to be happening currently with the coronavirus. Two top official sources for the latest information in that case and in general include the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The US State Department has issued a detailed China Travel Advisory as well.
Even while travelers temporarily avoid epicenters of the coronavirus, air travel can raise concerns since passengers may quickly and easily pass from one border to the next. As to the risk on board a flight, itself, in an interview with CNBC, the medical advisor at IATA, David Powell, stated that the risk of catching a serious viral infection on a flight is “very low” since the air on planes is purified with surgical-grade filters. (One question I would have is how effective are those filters if the passenger very near to you is coughing?)
In any case, with so much uncertainty, delays and cancellations may occur. In addition, for a traveler who wants to cancel because of a general “fear of travel”, a standard travel insurance may not be enough. The best bet? A “Cancel for Any Reason” policy” would be a good option. However, since it is time sensitive, be sure to read all the restrictions carefully. For more information, see Insure My Trip (Cancel for Any Reason Policies).
Beyond the current epidemic when faced with other health issues, travelers can take practical steps to be safer. While at home there are no guarantees of absolute safety, we are more likely to have some immunity to local diseases and access to medical resources in case of illness.
Aside from severe epidemics, travelers should always be aware of certain of the ways in which a disease can be contracted.
When I arrived in China in 2009, the swine flu epidemic was widespread. Entire incoming flights had been quarantined. Luckily, when I arrived solo to meet a tour and river cruise, the restrictions had been liberalized. Quarantine was limited to those within 3 rows of anyone with an elevated temperature rather than the entire airplane! Each of the arriving passengers had to walk through an area where our temperatures were taken remotely. The result was that as a solo traveler I had no way of knowing if I would be quarantined on arrival and if so, how I would meet my river cruise after it sailed! There were public service announcements posted everywhere with a cartoon drawing of a little pig wearing a hospital-style mask advising those with symptoms to protect others by doing so. As the only one traveling alone, I sat in the front of the tour bus with the guide. When the driver continued to cough, I quietly asked the guide why the driver was not wearing a mask. He reassured me that he was “just a smoker”. By the time we reached Shanghai, I had a severe respiratory virus with such severe chills that I huddled in my winter coat in bed in my high rise hotel. Although I may have acquired the virus elsewhere, it seemed to me that it directly followed my contact with the driver. The best strategy in such a case is avoiding those who are symptomatic. However, as in this case, it is not always possible.
Stray Domestic Animals: Although I have adopted four rescues from the local shelter for dogs, I am wary of stray animals when traveling abroad. Unlike in the US, there is no way of knowing if animals abroad have been vaccinated. In one case, a friend on travel was scratched by a cat strolling through a café. The result? Rabies shots begun abroad. Even in the US, I learned the hard way that if bitten or scratched you must identify the dog/animal and owner right away. Once strolling through the streets of popular Georgetown in Washington, DC, a dog bit me on the leg. Rather than try to find the owner, I rushed home to look at the wound. Luckily, I was wearing several layers and thick slacks. Although there was a bright pink mark on my leg, it hadn’t broken the skin. The key: Always identify the animal and its vaccination/health history first.
Wildlife can present an additional danger beyond diseases. I barely avoided feasting crocodiles when a foot bridge over the Zambezi River broke under my feet. Unfortunately, it was just above the crocodiles favorite dinner spot where the fishermen threw leftover bait. Luckily, I was rescued by being pulled over the side of a small sunset cruise boat and out of harm’s way. Be alert in game parks but also hiking in remote areas, even in the US. I have been surprised waiting for a deer to break out of the underbrush in the Shenandoah only to see a large brown bear cross my path instead!
Bird flu: Street markets give an authentic feel for each destination. However, during an epidemic thought to be carried or transmitted by animals, such as bird flu, it is better to steer clear of those stalls and to avoid not only such animals but also raw/lightly cooked meat.
Some time ago I had a really exciting solo trip to Cairo and on the Sudanese border to Abu Simbel in Upper Egypt. In between, I spent a once in a lifetime week on a Nile cruise. Unfortunately, a large number of us on the cruise were getting sick and began to suspect that the dishes were being washed in the Nile. To make matters worse, before I boarded the ship I went on an adventure. As the only foreigner (much less solo female traveler) in the Old Suq at Luxor, I had spent the day drinking tea and chatting with the vendors in the market. By the time, we reached Karnak, I was reeling. In the middle of one night in my cabin, I was so delirious I thought the overhead electric light was the sun rising over the Nile! The lesson here: Avoid not just water that isn’t bottled, but tea or coffee that has been heated but not boiled adequately.
Mosquitoes/Insects Sri Lanka: Before leaving home for Sri Lanka, I was concerned to read about the mosquito-borne Japanese Encephalitis. Although there was a series of vaccinations available, I decided not to worry about that unlikely contingency. When I arrived, I had second thoughts. Everywhere I looked there were wide open windows and dinners outside. Luckily, I managed to avoid getting bitten, but realized I had not really understood the problem and should have taken more precautions. While malaria is a big fear in Africa, the Middle East and other spots and can be fatal, Dengue Fever is less well-known but more common in popular spots like the Caribbean. Even in tropical climates, the best way to avoid mosquito-borne illnesses is to wear protective clothing and insect repellent and seek medical advice as to availability of pills or vaccinations.
Through my travels to 67+ countries, I have managed to avoid long-term, permanent illnesses primarily by researching my destinations’ health conditions before booking. Lastly, with careful planning, even now there are still many options to go abroad without landing in the middle of an epidemic.