Outbreaks and superbugs: Don’t get caught out while travelling these holidays

Don't let a nasty bug ruin your holiday.

Don't let a nasty bug ruin your holiday. Photo: Getty

Heading on holiday soon? With the rise of superbugs here and overseas, the last thing you want is a hardy stomach bug, or worse, to ruin a well-deserved break.

As many as one in two travellers will become ill while away – most of whom will be struck down by travellers’ diarrhoea or a respiratory illness such as cold or flu.

Measles outbreaks have also been rife this year, with a high number of cases reported in the Philippines, Ukraine, Japan, Brazil and Israel.

Worst yet, many travellers are unknowingly bringing back the deadly disease to Australia, with 86 cases recorded here in 2019 alone.

On Wednesday, health officials confirmed a new case of measles on Brisbane’s northside. It is believed the man was returning to Australia after visting Vietnam.

In NSW, a university student in her 20s from Sydney is the latest to be diagnosed, prompting health authorities to renew calls for people to get vaccinated, especially if travelling to South-East Asia.

“The majority of cases we are seeing are being brought home,” NSW Health’s Dr Jeremy McAnulty recently said.

“We are really worried it could take hold here.”

All travellers are urged to ensure their normal childhood vaccines are up to date before travelling. Anyone born between 1966 and 1994 might require a free measles booster.

But, measles is not the only threat to travellers. Adventure travellers visiting Fiji this month should also take care when planning any water-based activities.

According to global disease surveillance data, a recent outbreak of leptospirosis, a bacterial disease, has been found in the waterways in Suva and surrounding regions.

People who are planning to swim, kayak or raft in the area are most at risk, as well as anyone who may have contact with animals (the disease is spread through infected animal faeces or contaminated water).

In March, a health alert was also issued for rubella in Japan’s Kanto region, which includes Tokyo. Pregnant women are at very high risk of potential complications, and if unvaccinated, they are advised to avoid travel to Japan during the outbreak.

What are the main sources of infection?

The risk of picking up a nasty bug starts from the moment you arrive at the airport, experts say.

“Travel exposes you to lots of people. You don’t know who’s on the plane with you, so it makes sense to get vaccinated,” said medical director of the Travel Medicine Alliance clinics Dr Deb Mills.

Fresh water exposure, eating contaminated, raw or undercooked foods, and insect bites are all common sources of infection.

Some regions, especially in the tropics, are hotbeds for infectious diseases such as malaria, yellow fever and typhoid.

Meanwhile, travellers to South Asian countries face a very high risk of contracting a gastrointestinal bug, or a superbug that is no longer responding to antibiotics.

Drug-resistant bacteria are widespread in south Asian regions. Source: Ross AG et al. NEJM 2013

And contrary to popular belief, a person’s risk of catching a superbug could be just as high, or even higher, if staying in pricey hotels, according to a recent German study.

The researchers from that study found that one in five travellers contracted a drug-resistant germ while overseas – those who travelled to Asian countries had the highest risk.

The data also showed that travellers who stayed in a hotel, or in private accommodation were in each case four times more likely to contract a superbug than those staying in hostels, guest houses or at a campsite.

How to prevent falling ill

  • Many travel-related illnesses can be prevented with vaccination. These include the flu, hepatitis, malaria, typhoid, yellow fever, chicken pox, cholera, meningococcal, measles and tuberculosis.
  • Watch out for tick-borne illnesses when walking or hiking – spray on DEET insect repellent, wear long-sleeved clothing, tuck your pants into socks, and opt for light-coloured clothing to make it easier to see ticks.
  • Wash your hands regularly, and stick to bottled water to reduce your risk of infection.
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