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What should you do to protect yourself from infectious diseases while overseas?
Before you leave
1. Research your destination and planned activities
The risk of infectious disease differs greatly depending on where you intend to travel and what activities you plan to undertake while overseas. In particular consider:
- Will you be travelling to countries in which food or water quality might be of a lower standard?
- Contaminated food and water can increase the risk of acquiring infections such as gastroenteritis, hepatitis A and some parasites.
- Will you be travelling to wilderness or rural areas where you are likely to be exposed to farm animals or wildlife?
- Animals in many parts of the world may carry rabies. Diseases carried by ticks and mosquitoes are a risk in wilderness areas of many parts of the world unless preventative measures are taken.
- Will you be spending a lot of time outdoors where you might be exposed to mosquitoes?
- Mosquitoes can carry serious diseases including malaria, dengue fever and yellow fever.
Information on the health risks associated with many destinations can be found online at:
We also suggest you get in touch with the foreign missions of all of the countries you intend to visit or transit through. They can give you specific information about particular health requirements in their countries (e.g. vaccines you may need or medicines you should bring with you). They can also provide you with other information about their country that you could find useful or important.
2. See a doctor well in advance before you leave – even if you are well
Your doctor can advise you on measures which can be taken to avoid infectious diseases to which you might be exposed while overseas. This might include measures to avoid consuming potentially contaminated water or food, medication to reduce the risk of acquiring infections or vaccination against serious disease.
Many diseases which are a risk to travellers can be prevented by immunisation. You should talk to your doctor about any vaccines or boosters you may need. Some diseases that should be considered are:
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- Japanese encephalitis
- Meningococcal disease
- Varicella (Chickenpox)
- Yellow fever
Some countries still suffer high rates of infection from diseases that are rare in Australia due to our routine childhood vaccination. If you were born overseas, and you are returning to visit friends and family, you should still check with your doctor if you need any immunisations. Your immunity to some diseases may have changed or diminished with time.
Immunisations which are now routine in childhood in Australia should also be considered if travelling to areas where these diseases remain common. Depending on your age and previous medical history, you may not be protected against diseases such measles or polio. It is important to schedule a visit to your doctor at least 6-8 weeks before you travel to allow time to complete any vaccination schedule you undertake.
It is important to note that people who are one year of age or older will be asked to provide an international vaccination certificate for yellow fever if, within six days before arriving in Australia, they have stayed overnight or longer in a yellow fever risk country. Further information for travellers about yellow fever vaccination requirements can be found at Department of Health | Yellow fever – general fact sheet
While you are away
You can reduce the risk of developing an infectious disease when travelling by taking some simple preventative measures. Advice on the main health risks of travelling to particular countries can be found online at Smartraveller or by consulting a doctor experienced in travel medicine.
Some common measures which will help reduce the risk of infectious disease in many parts of the world to which Australians travel are:
1. Protect yourself from insects
The bite of infected mosquitoes is a major way by which infectious diseases can be spread in many parts of the world. Potentially serious diseases which are spread by mosquitoes include:
- Yellow Fever, which occurs in South America, Central America and Africa. Further information for travellers about yellow fever can be found at Department of Health | Yellow fever – general fact sheet
- Malaria, which occurs in Africa, Asia and South America and can be particularly severe in people without previous exposure to the disease.
- Dengue Fever, which occurs in most urban centres in the tropics. Serious outbreaks have occurred in Queensland when ill travellers have returned and infected local mosquitoes.
The most reliable way to make sure you don’t catch a mosquito-borne disease is to wear a mosquito repellent containing DEET or picaridin which will help avoid being bitten by a mosquito. There are other measures you can take to avoid being bitten, including:
- Wearing light coloured, long-sleeved clothes when you’re outdoors
- Avoiding wearing perfume or cologne (some of these can attract mosquitoes)
- Preventing mosquitoes entering your accommodation
- Using a mosquito net at night-time (if mosquitoes are likely to be present)
Mosquito-borne diseases don’t occur in all countries, but it is advisable to talk to your doctor about what vaccinations or medications you might need to take.
2. Be aware of the risk of rabies
Rabies is a virus which can potentially infect any warm-blooded animal and is found in most countries outside of Australia and New Zealand. It is spread through bites or scratches from infected animals. The greatest risk is posed by the types of animals people interact with commonly, such as dogs, but also includes monkeys, bats and rodents. Domestic or zoo animals in many parts of the world are vaccinated against rabies.
Travellers should be very careful around wild or feral animals, especially dogs, in all nations outside Australia and New Zealand. Avoid handling or feeding wild or unvaccinated animals as they might bite or scratch. Animals carrying rabies often do not behave differently or look unwell.
Infections with rabies are very rare but the disease is almost always fatal. If you are bitten or scratched by an animal while overseas it is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible. If a bite or scratch is considered sufficiently high-risk it is usual to provide vaccination and immunoglobulin to provide immunity against infection.
Further information for travellers about rabies can be found at Rabies, Australian bat lyssavirus and other lyssaviruses.
3. Think about what you eat and drink
Food-borne illness is a major cause of disease overseas and includes ‘traveller’s diarrhoea’ as well as more serious diseases such as hepatitis A or cholera.
The sources of food-borne illness are not always obvious. A glass of soft drink might be safe but the ice in the glass could be made with contaminated water.
High risk foods include:
- Unpasteurised dairy products
- Raw or minimally cooked meat or seafood
- Reheated food
- Food which has been left exposed to flies
- Food prepared in premises with poor hygiene
Your doctor can provide advice on antibiotics which can be carried if you are at high risk of developing food or water borne infections.
4. Sexually Transmissible Infections
Travellers should be aware of the ongoing risks of sexually transmissible infections (STIs) including chlamydia, gonorrhoea, human papillomavirus, herpes, syphilis, hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS. Condoms are not just for stopping pregnancy. They are also the best way to avoid STIs. Make sure you know how to use a condom properly and always have some with you. The rate of HIV/AIDS and viral hepatitis infection in some countries can be very high. Travellers should take precautions if engaging in activities that expose them to risk of infection such as use of contaminated needles and syringes, the use of non-sterile tattooing equipment, or unsafe sex.
Further information can be found at STI Sexually Transmissible Infections website.
5. Medical Tourism
Medical tourism refers to travelling to another country for the purpose of obtaining medical care. Many people who undertake medical tourism do so because treatment is much cheaper in another country. The most common procedures that people undergo on medical tourism trips include cosmetic surgery, dentistry, and heart surgery.
If you plan to travel overseas to receive medical care, including a cosmetic procedure, keep in mind that the quality of care you will receive may be different from that of medical care in Australia. It would be in your best interests to discuss your plans with your healthcare professional before you leave Australia. The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons has developed a checklist for you to consider before you plan for surgery in another country, which can be found in their Medical Tourism Advice Position Paper. Further information on Medical Tourism can be found on the Australian Government’sSmartraveller website.
Remember that you are financially responsible for costs incurred during and after treatment. Standard travel insurance is unlikely to cover any extra costs as a result of planned medical treatment abroad. Be honest with your insurance company about your plans and declare any pre-existing medical conditions.
When you return
If you become unwell in the two weeks after your return to Australia see your doctor.
It takes time after you are exposed to an infectious disease for you to become unwell (the incubation period).
For this reason, for the two weeks after you get back from overseas, you should pay close attention to your health.
If you get any of the following symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible.
- Unexplained skin rashes or lesions
- Persistent vomiting
- Persistent diarrhoea
- Unusual bleeding from the eyes, ears, nose, mouth or anus
- Swollen glands in your armpits or neck
- Prolonged loss of consciousness (not caused by consumption of alcohol, drugs or medications)
- Persistent coughing or difficulty breathing
This list is not exhaustive and if you are feeling unwell after being overseas you should see your doctor. It is important to tell your doctor that you’ve been overseas, where you went and what activities you undertook.
Most diseases acquired by travellers are not serious, but it is important to detect a serious infectious disease early. This allows infectious diseases to be treated as soon as possible and you to take immediate steps to avoid transmitting this disease to others.
If you are concerned about a disease after you have returned to Australia you can also contact the public health unit in your state or territory (see contact details listed below).
Contact details of Public Health Units in each state and territory
Australian Capital Territory
Communicable Disease Control
Department of Health
Phone: (02) 6205 2155
New South Wales
Public Health Units
NSW Department of Health
Phone: 1300 066 055
Centre for Disease Control
Department of Health and Families
Phone: (08) 8922 8044
Communicable Diseases Unit
Phone: (07) 3328 9724
Communicable Disease Control Branch
Department of Health
Phone: 1300 232 272
Communicable Disease Prevention Unit
Department of Health and Human Services
Phone: 1300 135 513
Communicable Disease Prevention and Control Unit
Department of Health
Phone: 1300 651 160
Communicable Disease Control Directorate
Department of Health
Phone: (08) 9388 4852 (office hours) or (08) 9328 0553 (after hours)
Department of Health