For most people planning to attend the Summer Olympics in Brazil this summer, the big health concern is Zika virus. Justifiably so. There is not yet a vaccine against the virus, which can cause the serious birth defect of microcephaly in pregnant women who contract it, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has offered preventive advice to avoid the mosquitos whose bites can be infectious: Use a good mosquito repellent, and wear long sleeves and pants to prevent mosquito bites, especially clothing treated with the repellent permethrin.
What might get overlooked in the concern over Zika, though, is the need to be protected against other illnesses that are easily preventable through vaccination or other medications. The CDC recommends vaccines for Hepatitis A and typhus for most travelers to Brazil. Both can be spread through contaminated food or water, which might be encountered by any tourist.
Vaccination against Hepatitis B is also worth considering, according to the CDC. The disease can be spread through contaminated needles, which means immunization would cover not just those who might go for a Summer Games tattoo or get a piercing, but who might need a medical procedure during their visit.
Many travelers might take advantage of being in the region to go visit the more rural and forested areas of Brazil. In that case, the CDC says, they should consider vaccination or preventive medication against malaria, yellow fever and rabies.
One item that’s too easily overlooked: All those routine vaccinations for measles, mumps, tetanus, pertussis, polio and the like. They are especially needed by travelers who plan to attend Olympic events, where they will be in close quarters with people from around the world.
The problem is that people looking forward to their foreign trips, whether to Brazil or anywhere else, have to think of this issue themselves in order to get the information they need. No warnings or advice come with their air or hotel reservations, said Dr. Melanie Mouzoon*, managing physician for immunization practice at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic in Houston.
“Travelers are not very good at thinking about that in advance,” Mouzoon said. “They travel on the spur of the moment. ‘Hey, I’ve got tickets, come on, let’s go.’ Many airline tickets ought to say, in addition to buying your trip insurance, get these vaccines before you travel.”
At greatest risk are natives of the area who haven’t been there in a while, Mouzoon said. They are the least likely to seek out vaccinations but may not realize that they potentially no longer have the protection that comes with incidental exposure.
And with the Olympics less than two months away, time is running out. Many vaccines should be started at least six weeks before traveling, Mouzoon said.
Travelers also should be aware that the need to take protective steps against Zika doesn’t end when they return. They should continue their efforts to prevent mosquito bites, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, in case they unknowingly contracted the virus abroad. Mosquitos that bite them at home could then spread the virus to others. And pregnant women, Mouzoon said, should skip the trip altogether.
*Dr. Melanie Mouzoon is also on the Board of Directors for The Immunization Partnership.
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