Ten bizarre travel diseases that can ruin your next vacation

travel diseasesOn some level, catching a weird disease or picking up a little-known tropical parasite on your travels gives you bragging rights. “Look at me, I’m so hardcore!” Trust me, I’ve been there. But with Multidrug-Resistant Tuberculosis (MDR TB) making headlines worldwide, I’d like to remind fellow travelers that these diseases are no joke, and even those of us with healthy immune systems and access to industrialized medicine aren’t impervious.

The reality is, you never know what you might be susceptible to. In my case, my doctors and medical research indicate that I may be lacking an enzyme that made me vulnerable to an extremely rare but serious tropical disease caused by the bacteria Bartonella bacilliformis, which causes Oroya Fever (and its precursor, Verruga Peruana). I’m still recovering from a three-year battle with the disease that has resulted in permanent organ damage because of a failure to protect myself against sand flies in the Amazon Basin region of Ecuador. Regular applications of DEET could have prevented that, as well as the various misdiagnoses of tuberculosis, histoplasmosis, and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but that’s another story.

A lot of tropical and uncommon travel-related ailments are difficult to diagnose, and sometimes even more problematic to cure (if they don’t kill you, first). Statistically, however, most travelers–even if they’re in extremely sketchy parts of the world–will stay healthy if they take the necessary precautions. Having a trustworthy travel doctor is also helpful if you spend a lot of time in developing nations.
Being prepared before you leave home is key. You should never take travel wellness lightly, but don’t let fear ruin your trip. I certainly don’t follow every bit of medical advice out there (I honestly don’t see the point of traveling if not to eat epic quantities of street food.). If you’re going to be completely paranoid and don’t own a Hazmat suit, perhaps it’s better to stay home. But don’t ignore CDC warnings for recommended (or required) vaccinations, and if you know you’re going to be in a malarial or otherwise-dangerous insect-or-disease-inhabited region, prepare accordingly.

Just remember to do your research before you go, and remember that while it most likely won’t happen to you, it’s not impossible.

After the video (graphic, but it illustrates just how devastating TB can be, as well as provides important information on Multidrug-Resistant Tuberculosis), a gallery of bizarre diseases you’ll want to avoid during your travels.


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Top five things to look for in a travel doctor, and why you should have one

travel doctorsDespite writing about food and adventure travel for a living, I used to be somewhat blasé about the concept of travel medicine. Multiple incidents of Giardia/dysentery/traveler’s diarrhea/full-body outbreaks of mosquito and sand fly bites just taught me to carry a serious stash of antibiotics in my first-aid kit. At least I’ve always been conscientious about travel immunizations and educating myself about the primary diseases indigenous to my destination.

When you’re young and healthy, it seems silly to have a travel medicine specialist. Although this article is primarily directed at adventure travelers, odds are, the worst thing you’ll come home with is a backpack full of crappy souvenirs. But no one’s invincible, and should you require a specialist for something not responding to conventional treatment or with progressive symptoms, time is of the essence. Many “exotic” diseases progress rapidly, and can cause irreversible damage or death if not properly diagnosed and treated. Even with incurable diseases, the earlier you catch them, the easier it will be to manage symptoms and prevent them for worsening.

No, I’m not a doctor, although I come from a medical family. But I got seriously schooled after visiting Ecuador two years ago. After a fantastic month of adventure activities in remote parts of the Andes and Amazon Basin, I fell seriously ill the last day my trip. Two years of at-times crippling symptoms, 10 CT scans, five medical facilities, dozens of specialists, four surgical procedures, two surgeries, one cancer diagnosis, and near-medical bankruptcy later, I’ve become an expert at being my own advocate.

My infectious disease doctor believes that I contracted a form of bartonellosis called Oroya Fever after being bitten by sand flies. The good news: My health is currently stable, but we don’t know if the disease is in remission or not. But I have permanent cognitive damage, scarring or tumors on most of my internal organs, and intermittent arthritis. But believe me, I feel lucky.

I don’t want anyone to go through the health and medical nightmare I’ve endured, so I’ve compiled a list of essentials in a travel medicine doctor. Ergo, number one with a bullet:

1. Is he/she a travel or tropical medicine specialist?
Pre-bartonella, I used an internist as my GP/prescriber of antibiotics. If you can find an internist, gastroenterologist, or infectious disease doctor who is also a specialist in travel medicine, that’s a huge plus.travel doctors 2. Does he/she have personal experience traveling or practicing in developing nations?
There are a lot of practicioners who aren’t globally aware, so to speak. You can’t diagnose what you don’t understand, know about, or have first-hand experience with. Period.

3. Is he/she a good listener and empathetic?
It’s difficult to find these qualities in any doctor, especially in today’s medical climate. But it’s imperative to find someone you can communicate with, and who understands what you’re going through if you’re suffering from a mystery travel ailment. Don’t settle, even if you need to travel to another state or country to seek treatment (what stumps doctors here is often commonplace in the country of origin).

4. Does he/she have a good network of colleagues in multiple specialties (including travel/tropical medicine) to consult for additional opinions?
My current mantra is to seek a third opinion, from at least two different medical facilities. That, and to have a travel physician who actively consults colleagues and does additional research to assist with a diagnosis and/or treatment. My infectious disease doctor talked to specialists at a medical school in Peru on my behalf, and even tracked down a relevant medical paper from 1897 as he honed in on a diagnosis. And while I wouldn’t consider it a deal-breaker if the answer is no, see if your doctor is an active and participating member of the International Society of Travel Medicine.
travel doctors
5. Does he/she return your calls/provide you with email, pager, or office number so you can get in touch directly?
I’ve learned that a good doctor who is invested in your recovery will provide an open line of contact to address questions, concerns, and exchange pertinent information. Tip: Please don’t abuse this privilege. Physicians work insanely long hours, under constant stress. And don’t expect to hear back immediately if you leave a non-urgent message; be realistic. A couple of days, fine (many specialists aren’t in clinic every day). A week? Make a polite follow-up.

Whether or not you end up getting a travel doctor, the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) provides loads of useful information, including a directory of global travel medicine clinics with English-speaking staff, and a destination-specific travel health planner. And depending upon what you plan to do on your trip, where you’re traveling, and your financial situation, you may want to invest in travel insurance.

[Photo credits: blood transfusion, Flickr user CarynNL;patient, Flickr user kk+; legs, Laurel Miller]

The Ultimate Travel First Aid Kit

Gadling’s 2011 New Year’s travel resolutions

New Year'sIt’s that time of year again. A time when we all make certain promises to ourselves, in an attempt to make our lives more organized, our bodies stronger or leaner. We vow to spend more time with loved ones, give back to others, or ditch that cubicle job. And some of us…well, we just want to keep on traveling, any way we can manage to finagle it.

In the spirit of New Year’s, I asked my fellow Gadling contributors about their travel resolutions for the coming year, and came up with some of my own. Our goals are all over the map (no pun intended), but a common theme emerged. Despite our love of exotic adventures, most of us want to spend more time exploring in our own backyard (that would be the United States). That, and invent musical underwear.

Leigh Caldwell

  • Go on my first cruise.
  • Spend a weekend somewhere without Internet access, and, if I survive that…
  • Celebrate the Fourth of July with my family in Banner Elk, North Carolina, home of the quintessential small-town Independence Day. There’s a three-legged race, a rubber ducky race down a mountain stream, and a parade filled with crepe paper, balloons, and every kid and dog in town.

McLean Robbins

  • Quit my “day job” so I can do this full-time.

[Photo credit: Flickr user nlmAdestiny]New Year'sLaurel Miller

  • Get back in shape after a two-year battle with Oroya Fever (contracted in Ecuador), and climb a volcano in Bolivia.
  • Finally start exploring my adopted state of Washington, especially the Olympic Peninsula.
  • Visit India for the first time; see if it’s possible to subsist on street food without getting dysentery.
  • Learn to wear DEET at all times when traveling in countries that harbor nearly-impossible-to-diagnose diseases like Oroya Fever.

Sean MacLachlan

  • Get back to Ethiopia.
  • Explore Green Spain (the north part of the country).
  • Show my son a non-Western culture.
  • Invent an underwear stereo that plays cheap jazz music when subjected to a TSA patdown.

New Year's
Mike Barish

  • Drive cross country.
  • See the Grand Canyon (finally).
  • Finally learn how not to overpack.
  • And, for the fifth year in a row, I resolve to learn how to play the keytar (2011 has got to be the year!).

Darren Murph

  • Bound and determined to visit my 50th state, Alaska.
  • Dead-set on relocating a childhood friend of mine back to North Carolina, and then taking him on a road trip of some sort.

Meg Nesterov

  • Visit more places where I know people.
  • Be in more travel pictures and get my husband out from behind the
  • camera occasionally.
  • Take at least one guidebook-free and paperless trip. Okay, maybe one map.
  • Take better notes. I might think I’ll always remember the name of that fun-looking restaurant or weird sign I want to translate, but it’s easy to forget when you’re taking in so many new things.
  • See more of Turkey while I still live here. I spend so much time traveling to nearby countries, I have to be sure to see the landscape of Cappadocia and eat the food in Gaziantep before I go back to the U.S..New Year's

Grant Martin, Editor-in-Chief

  • Travel a bit less and work a bit more [Sure, Grant!].

Annie Scott Riley

  • Travel less alone, and more with my husband.

Alex Robertson Textor

  • More open-jaw travel, flying into one destination and traveling by land to another before returning home. It’s my favorite way to see a new or familiar territory–gradually and without any backtracking. I need to do it more often.
  • More thematic consistency in my travels. Instead of scrambling to meet whatever assignment comes my way, I want my travels in the next year to be focused on a region or two, and on a number of overarching questions or issues. I’m still collecting ideas: Remote European mountain villages? Neglected second-tier cities? The Caucasus?
  • Northern Cyprus. Have been wanting to visit since I was a kid. 2011’s the year.

New Year'sDavid Farley

  • To take back the name “Globetrotters” from the Harlem basketball team.
  • To introduce eggnog and lutefisk to southeast Asia.
  • To eat fewer vegetables.

[Photo credits: volcano, Laurel Miller; Grand Canyon, Flickr user Joe Y Jiang; Cappadocia, Flickr user Curious Expeditions; lutefisk, Flickr user Divine Harvester]