As families prepare to jet off to warmer climes for upcoming school vacations, health officials warn against returning with unwanted souvenirs: bacteria, viruses and parasites.
In a Feb. 5 health advisory, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported investigating multiple cases of travel-related illnesses last year, including a nasty disease carried by mosquitoes now appearing for the first time in the Western hemisphere.
Chikungunya, a viral disease common in Africa and Asia that spreads through mosquito bites, was detected in December on the island of St. Martin, marking the first time the illness was contracted in the Americas. It has since rapidly advanced to seven other countries, including Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Barthelemy, Dominica, and the British Virgin Islands.
The virus has not yet appeared in the United States.
Chikungunya — pronounced chik-en-GUN-ya — causes fever and muscle pain. While rarely fatal, the symptoms can linger, sometimes for months. With no vaccine or treatment available, health officials urge travelers to avoid mosquito bites by covering exposed skin and using insect repellant.
Maine has investigated one case of chikungunya, as well as reports of dengue fever, a similar mosquito-borne illness, and malaria in people who have recently traveled or moved to Maine from another country, according to Maine CDC.
“Maine residents frequently travel outside of the United States during school vacation weeks in February and April, often to warmer climates, putting them at risk for vector- and food-borne diseases,” the health advisory states.
The advisory also highlighted hepatitis A and shigellosis, two illnesses travelers can pick up by ingesting contaminated food or water or having close personal contact with an infected individual.
Many travel-related illnesses can be prevented with vaccinations, frequent hand-washing, and researching the health risks ahead of time, health officials say.
At Intermed’s travel clinic in Portland, appointments are booked through the first week of March, said clinic nurse Ann Lafortune. Patients are lining up for hepatitis A and typhoid vaccines, malaria medication and antibiotics for that most common of travelers’ ailments, diarrhea, she said.
“We are turning people away, to be honest,” she said.
Patients are encouraged to visit the clinic, which treats adults, six weeks prior to an overseas trip, as some vaccines take time to become fully effective, Lafortune said.
Travelers also can schedule a consultation with a physician who specializes in tropical and infectious diseases to learn about vaccines and symptoms to watch for, she said. While primary care doctors administer some travel-related vaccines, other immunizations are typically available only at travel clinics, including typhoid and yellow fever immunizations, Lafortune said.
“If you’re going outside of the usual [destinations], it’s really good to visit a travel clinic,” she said.
While tourist resorts are typically less risky, travelers should be wary of eating street food and drinking local water, Lafortune said. Avoid swimming in still water bodies, where mosquitoes can breed, and petting dogs, which may carry rabies, she said.
Upon returning, keep an eye out for new symptoms, which sometimes show up weeks or months after an overseas trip, Lafortune said. Diarrhea, fever or rash all warrant a visit to the travel clinic or doctor’s office, she said.
For a list of Maine travel clinics, visit www.maine.gov/dhhs/mecdc/infectious-disease/immunization/international-travel.shtml. For information about travel health, including country-specific risks, visit www.cdc.gov/travel.