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Foreign Travel Health Precautions

Unexpectedly, we found ourselves with a 2 week vacation to South Africa, with one week on a private game reserve and the other, traveling around the country.  Our friends couldn’t make use of the “Photo Safari Vacation” they had won at a charity auction; and we happily bought it from them.  However, preparations, according to our guidebook, would require protection from tropical diseases.  What exactly did we need to protect ourselves and how and where would we get it?

Information on Foreign Travel Health Care

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, has up-to-date detailed information on what’s needed to travel, listed by country on their website. Aside from the  routine childhood immunizations that most people already have, the CDC recommends an up-to-date DPT (Diphtheria / Pertussin /Tetanus) (primarily for the tetanus), Hepatitis-A&B, and typhoid vaccinations for travel to South Africa.  Because we would be going through the KwaZulu-Natal game reserves, anti-malarial medication was also suggested.  Most importantly, these measures must be taken 4 to 6 weeks before our trip to take effect.

Where to Get the Necessary Immunizations

At this point, my husband and I took two different routes to get this protection.  He went to his internist for the necessary preventative care but declined the Hepatitis-A shot because it is largely an anti-Aids measure and he didn’t see how he’d be affected.  (Hepatitis-A requires 3 shots separated by 1 and 6 months).  For malaria, his doctor recommended the anti-malarial drug, Malarone, to be taken once a day starting 2 days before we left for the trip and continuing until 5 days after we returned.

I chose, instead, to try the public health services, at least, for the vaccines.  On the California Department of Public Health Immunization web site, I clicked on the link for my county, Orange, to get Orange County Public Health Services and under “Family Health” found the Orange County Immunization website.  Listed there was the location and phone number of the OC Travel Clinic.  At the clinic, a nurse-practioner administered my vaccines at a 40% lower cost than what was charged my husband and the “office visit” cost me just $30.  She also convinced me to take the Hepatitis-A vaccine in the event of an accident requiring a blood transfusion with Aids tainted blood.  (South Africa has one of the highest rates of people afflicted with Aids)  I did contact my doctor for the anti-malarial drug and his recommendation was Mefloquine, a medication taken only once a week for 7 weeks.  Here again, my costs were considerably cheaper: $70 vs. $175.

Health Insurance Coverage

Starting in September, 2010, new private health insurance plans must cover vaccines without cost sharing.  Seniors covered under Medicare will have this benefit beginning in 2011.  (Frankly, however, I think people who can afford a trip to South Africa shouldn’t depend on the public for their immunization costs.)  Also, some drug insurance policies cover anti-malarial medications.

Travel Medical Insurance

One health care option that should be considered by anyone traveling abroad is travel medical insurance.  A medical evacuation back to the U.S,  can cost more than $10,000 and, without insurance, many foreign doctors and hospitals require payment in cash or refuse service altogether. The cost of treatment and transport in case of an accident or serious illness could be ruinous; but health insurance for just the duration of the trip is relatively inexpensive.  (The cost varies with individuals and destinations.)

Getting the necessary medical protections and applying for travel medical insurance takes effort in the midst of hectic travel preparations but it’s worth the peace of mind.  Our trip to South Africa was a mind-expanding, exhilarating experience, and well worth the precautions we took to ensure a safe and healthy return.

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