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Stick to government websites for worldwide medical updates

August 22, 2004|Kathleen Doheny | Special to The Times

Search on Google using the words "travel health information," and more than 9 million results come up. No wonder it's difficult for travelers to separate legitimate advice from worthless talk.

One way to avoid inaccurate or outdated information, experts say, is to stick with governmental sites, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's newly revamped travel health Web pages.

Although some commercial travel sites do carry solid health information, overall they fall short, according to Dr. Herbert DuPont, chief of internal medicine and medical director of travel medicine at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston. He recently reviewed the websites of 25 top airlines and 20 discount travel agencies such as Expedia and Travelocity.

"I'd give the airline sites no better than a C," said DuPont, whose findings were published in the Journal of Travel Medicine for September-October. "The discount travel sites were worse." Among the sites DuPont and other experts recommend:

* The CDC's travel section was revamped in May to be clearer and better organized, said Dr. Pattie Simone, acting branch chief for the Geographic Medicine and Health Promotion Branch of the CDC.

Under the new system, the website has a "Travel Notices" section with four categories.

"In the News" reports sporadic cases of disease or health risks, such as measles, encephalitis or yellow fever. It reinforces disease prevention, telling travelers how to avoid mosquito bites that lead to dengue fever, for example.

Another category, "Outbreaks," publicizes outbreaks in a limited geographic area. It includes recommendations, such as pre-trip immunizations.

When CDC officials think an outbreak poses an elevated health risk, they post notices in a third category, "Travel Health Precautions." Simone said the precaution could be interpreted by travelers as: "There is a significant risk but not enough to say, 'Don't go.' "

The strongest category of notices, "Travel Health Warnings," is for outbreaks that pose an even greater risk and are spreading beyond the initial area or population, possibly because of inadequate containment measures. The CDC advises against all nonessential travel to these areas, Simone said.

For more details on the categories, see

* The World Health Organization's home page has a section called "Disease Outbreaks," which lists outbreaks by disease. Click on the "Disease Outbreak News" link and you'll get a chronological list. At the bottom of that list is an "Archives" section with warnings grouped by disease, year or country. The website recently warned travelers of hepatitis E in Sudan, then linked to a fact sheet and other information on the disease.

* The International Society of Travel Medicine promotes safe travel. Members include doctors, nurses and other health professionals. Its home page has a "Travel Clinic Directory" that allows users to search by state or country.

Other tips for reviewing health information online:

* "Find out when the information was written," travel medicine specialist DuPont said. If the information is in a news release, look at its date of issue.

* Consider the reputation of the organization issuing the information. Even big companies can have outdated data, so cross-check them, especially against government sites that are frequently updated.

Healthy Traveler appears every other week. Kathleen Doheny can be reached at kathleen

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