Illness and Death on Vacation

Of all the travelers’ tales, stories about being sick can be the most frightening. From stomach ailments like Delhi Belly, to burrowing Brazilian worms, to respiratory illnesses like SARS, no experience of being sick abroad is ever pleasant. To make matters more complicated, even simple ailments can be more difficult to handle in countries where sanitation or health care is suboptimal.

The odds a traveler to the developing world will become ill enough to seek health care while abroad or on returning home are 1 in 12.5. Some parts of the world seem more prone to causing illness than others—for example, the odds a traveler to the developing world who becomes ill is visiting Sub-Saharan Africa are 1 in 3.84, while the same odds for Central America are 1 in 13.09 and 1 in 6.21 for Southeast Asia.

With many areas of the globe currently experiencing outbreaks of the H1N1 flu, those planning to travel outside the US in the next few months are packing some extra concerns—not only about getting sick, but also about the chance of being quarantined far from home. Since May 2009, China has quarantined more than 1,800 Americans in an attempt to slow the spread of H1N1 flu. In the spring, the government of Mexico—the site of the original discovery of the virus—indicated it felt that its citizens had been unfairly held by Chinese officials. And more recently, on October 9, 2009, the US State Department issued a warning that travelers to Cuba who appear ill upon arrival will be evaluated at the airport and face a possible quarantine.

Some travelers who are concerned their plans may get disrupted by illness opt for private travel insurance. Others utilize services like the Air Ambulance which will whisk tourists away by medical helicopter if they are injured and want to be transported back to the United States. Of the travelers who seek out medical care in the developing world, only 11% become ill enough to require inpatient care. The ailments with the greatest odds of occurring while traveling in the developing world are diarrhea, insect bites, and dertmatologic disorders.

Certain types of vacations are more likely to get you ill than others. On cruise ships, illnesses like norovirus, which recently sickened more than 700 passengers and employees during a trans-Atlantic Carnival cruise, can quickly spread. The Centers for Disease Control says that noroviruses affect about 23 million Americans per year, usually presenting symptoms like a 24-hour stomach bug.

While getting sick while traveling is annoyingly common, dying abroad is a relatively rare occurrence. The odds a traveler to the developing world will die from an illness are 1 in 1,562. So while those tales of stomach ills, itchy bites, and flu may be scary, traveling the globe may be one of the safer vacation bets.

Leave a Comment