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Preparing for travel to Asia

PacMed doctor discusses health precautions to take prior to Asian travel

JBLM soldiers spend a lot of time training in Asian countries, as well as military families living in these places, too. Knowing how to protect your health is important when traveling. Photo credit: Lance Cpl. Maximiliano Rosas

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Traveling to another country - or continent - can be exciting. The chance to experience new cultural, custom, and cuisine-related differences provides the foundation for cherished life moments that will be remembered for years to come. In the next few years, many servicemen and women will be traveling to Asia. Dr. Ari Gilmore, a family medicine doctor with Pacific Medical Centers, runs the Travel Clinic at the PacMed Beacon Hill campus. With 12 years in the medical field, he knows the ins and outs of medical travel preparations. Here, Dr. Gilmore explains the necessary health precautions to take before and during travel to Asian countries.

1. Many military personnel will be traveling abroad to Asia within the next few years. What are the major health concerns in these countries at this time?

Wherever people are going, we usually talk about hepatitis A and tetanus - those are the standard things. Hepatitis B is the number one concern when traveling to Asia. For people who will spend time in rural areas for more than a month, there is also some concern about Japanese encephalitis and malaria. Additionally, for both male and female personnel, we worry about Zika virus and the possible impact it can have on pregnancies.

2. What precautions should soldiers take before traveling to these countries to avoid these illnesses?

In general, the military does a great job of vaccinating their personnel. It's a very cost-effective way to ensure they do not contract major travel illnesses. Soldiers need to be personally responsible for avoiding mosquito bites, being mindful of dining at clean restaurants that have adequate hand-washing supplies in their restrooms, and avoiding blood and other bodily fluids to avoid the risk of transmitting HIV. Contact with unsanitary and mishandled foods are more likely to cause stomach issues than unclean water, but if safe drinking water is a concern for people, I recommend bringing a small, portable water filter for those doing more adventurous travel.

3. Should something happen while stationed in Asia, what measures do you recommend taking to treat illness?

For people concerned about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or HIV exposure, they should take care of it immediately. Also, if a fever lasts for more than three days, or if it becomes difficult to maintain an adequate fluid intake due to gastrointestinal issues, they may need treatment and should get seen by a doctor right away.

4. Are there any items or medicines you suggest people travel with?

For our travel patients, we usually send them off with as-needed travel diarrhea treatments and antibiotics, as well as other symptom-control medications. If they're going to be in an area with malaria, then we give them anti-malarial tablets as well. I also advise people to pack these items, as appropriate: band-aids, portable water filters, mosquito repellent, ibuprofen and Tylenol. Sometimes pain medications in other countries do not have adequate medicine in them, so it's good to have your own on hand. I also recommend carrying around a list of current medications and your medical history along, with your passport, in case of any medical emergencies.

5. Is there anything else you feel people should know about traveling to Asia?

I often warn my younger patients going to Southeast Asia of the hepatitis B and HIV background there and the high sex trade being practiced. Subsequently, I advise them to refrain from sexual activity to avoid transmission of these diseases. If they do choose to engage, I ask them to practice safe sex with condoms and to follow up with testing afterward.

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