If you want to make a lasting impact halfway across the planet, staying healthy is imperative. A sick or injured volunteer is no help to anyone
By Fina Scroppo
Before You Go
Any kind of travelling can stress the body, but a long-term volunteer posting can be especially taxing. So, before you hit the departure lounge: Schedule a checkup with your family health practitioner to ensure you get a clean bill of health. If you have an underlying medical condition, talk to your doctor about the possible effects from the region’s climate and native diet and the activities your post will require.
Be sure to pack the proper medications and dosages, along with original prescriptions in case you need a refill. Check with airlines about proper transportation and storage of medicines, needles or syringes.
Buy medical travel insurance in case of emergencies and check that your policy covers all activities. Ask your volunteer organization if there’s a contingency plan in place in the event of an emergency.
Consult a travel clinic before travelling to ensure your regular immunizations are up to date and you get the appropriate vaccines and drug therapies at least eight weeks before your departure. Vaccine-preventable diseases include: hepatitis A, B, Japanese encephalitis, meningococcal meningitisdisease,pneumococcal disease, poliovirus, rotavirus, tetanus, tick-borneencephalitis,typhoidand paratyphoidfever,yellowfever.Thereis no vaccine for malaria, but a preventive treatment is available. A rabies vaccine is also available, but it does not offer full immunity.
Shake off the effects of jetlag. You’ve travelled for what seems like days and now you’re weary and have to adjust to another time zone. Minimize the wear on your body by avoiding alcohol and drinking plenty of water before, during and after your flight. Get lots of rest before your journey and synchronize your body as soon as possible by following the schedule of the new time zone—eating and sleeping when they do.
Traveller’s diarrhea is one of the most common illnesses among travellers to the developing world. It can be brought on by a number of viruses (Norwalk), parasites (Giardiasis), and bacteria (Cholera) ingested through contaminated foods and water. Practice good dietary hygiene by avoiding the following hazards: drinking tap water, brushing your teeth with tap water or consuming ice made from tap water; raw foods such as seafood or meat or unwashed or unpeeled fruits and vegetables; undercooked meats; unpasteurized milk or dairy products like cheese or ice cream; food from a street vendor. The common mantra among the health professionals should be your anthem for your entire stay: peel it, boil it, cook it or forget it!
The more common vectorborne diseases include malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, plague, African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), chikungunya fever, and Japanese encephalitis. While vaccines and preventive treatments are available for some of these (see previous page), they don’t always offer full protection. So, the next best defence is to limit your exposure to the mosquitoes, ticks and other vectors that transmit these diseases. Wear long sleeves and pants if you must work outdoors or spray an insecticide or repellent on skin and thin clothing. Use mosquito netting when sleeping in a room that is not screened.
Freshwater swimming, while seemingly harmless in North America, can be problematic in tropical and subtropical areas. In these regions, rivers, lakes and other bodies of water can be home to a number of parasites, including the Schistosoma parasite, which can enter the body through the skin. Contact with fresh water can also put you at risk for bacteria, viruses and infection. Avoid swimming or bathing in water of unknown safety or that is potentially contaminated.
Sources of safe drinking water will likely be scarce, so you’ll need to rely on bottled, boiled, filtered or purified water to quench your thirst. If you can’t get bottles of water (be sure seals and caps are intact), boiling water is a reliable way to kill the micro-organisms that cause illness. Investigate the option of bringing a portable water filter or purifying tablets or liquids. Check their labels and note their limitations—even the best units and purifiers don’t remove all health risks.
Animal/snake bites: Never pet or feed an animal in developing regions—they may carry rabies. If you’ve been bitten by an animal, flush the wound with clean water and seek immediate medical attention. Rabies can be fatal if not treated early enough. While typically snakes only bite if provoked, it’s possible you can accidentally disturb their habitat if rock climbing, brushing up against a tree, stepping over a log or stepping outside at night. If you’ll be working in an area where the slithery creatures make their home, take these precautions: wear long pants and closed- toe shoes, avoid reaching into dark holes or crevasses, don’t pick up snakes and keep your distance from snakes if you see one.
Avoid high-risk behaviour. Some common sense can reduce your risk for hazards like HIV/AIDS. Steer clear of the following behaviours: unprotected sex; body piercing or tattooing; sharing needles, syringes, razors or toothbrushes.
Pack an emergency travel kit. Medical care may not always be imminently available in the host country, so bringing a first-aid kit is prudent. Be sure to pack antiseptic wipes or soap, gauze and bandages, insect repellent, anti-diarrheal medication, and pain relief medication. Don’t forget to also include packets of oral rehydration tablets or salts (available at most pharmacies) to help replace lost fluids and electrolytes during bouts of diarrhea, dehydration or extreme heat. For a full list of first-aid kits and reminders, see the November/December 2010 issue.
It’s not just the physical stress but also the mental and emotional strain that can affect your body. Perhaps you’re ecstatic about helping a new community build new homes or assisting in a health clinic. But that initial joy can turn to frustration, anxiety and poor adjustment when you can’t speak the language, are having trouble sleeping, haven’t adapted to the minimal food supply and miss the comforts of home. Expect an adjustment period and know that you’ll experience some culture shock—it can take time to get your body and mind into a rhythm. There are ways to minimize the jolt.
Prepare for your posting by learning about the country’s geographical conditions, language, cultural sensitivities and social nuances. Be open to new experiences and document them in a journal to help you express your feelings.
Safeguard your security. Don’t take it for granted that your environment is as safe as back home. Many countries in need are typically also experiencing political instability and strife. Protect yourself by limiting the amount of cash and valuables you carry. If you’re renting a car, beware of people who flag you down and ask for help. It’s wise to follow the advice of locals about areas to avoid. If you’re venturing out, always let someone know where you’re going and when to expect you back.
Transportation: The risk of getting injured from a car, minibus or motorcycle accident is significantly higher in developing countries where traffic laws are almost nonexistent. If your main mode of transportation is by motorcycle, take a course before departing for your destination and always wear a helmet. Learn the rules of the road and drive only if you’re comfortable with it. Avoid overcrowded buses and boats/ferries, when possible.
- Fina Scroppo, a longtime writer and editor, is author of The Healthy Italian cookbook and website.