With SARS in the news again, many travelers worry about getting sick on the road or coming home with an unusual disease.
But the most serious travel-related health hazard, statistics suggest, are accidents such as car crashes. Travelers are more likely to be killed or injured in accidents or through violence than to die of infectious diseases contracted away from home.
Even veteran travelers fail to put the risks of illness into proper perspective, says Patricia Schlagenhauf, a research scientist in communicable diseases, European senior editor of the Lancet medical journal and author of an article on travel accidents in the December issue of the Journal of Travel Medicine.
Studies show that on any given trip, up to 54% of travelers contract health problems on the road, Schlagenhauf says, but accident-related injuries are more serious, accounting for more than half of all traveler deaths.
Motor vehicles are responsible for many, she says. Fatalities are much higher in some developing countries than in industrialized ones. Vehicle-related fatalities in Africa, for example, are up to 100 times more common than in Britain, Schlagenhauf says. Road accidents often occur when vehicles are in poor condition and are overcrowded.
Schlagenhauf found that the most dangerous form of travel worldwide is the minibus, followed by motorbike, bicycle, foot and car. South Africa, known for its high accident rate, logs about 70,000 minibus accidents each year, resulting in more than 1,000 deaths, according to that country's Department of Transport.
To minimize risks, travelers should do some research before departure, says Laurie Wexler, executive director of the Assn. for Safe International Road Travel, a nonprofit organization that posts road reports and other information at www.asirt.org. Safety tips also are posted at travel.state.gov/roadsafety.html, where you can find Web pages for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. Some tips:
* Once at your destination, inquire at your hotel about reputable tour buses and taxis. Depending on the country, it might be safer to hire a professional driver instead of renting a car.
* If you're taking a tour bus, ask the company for safety records. Ask if the drivers are licensed and if the company provides fresh drivers for overnight excursions.
* If you choose cabs, ask drivers if they know how to reach your requested location. "Travelers should try to hire only roadworthy vehicles and should insist on safety belts, child's seats and so on," Schlagenhauf says.
* When renting a car, request air bags and lap belts. Ask to see maintenance records. "Get as much information as you can," Wexler says.
* If you drive in another country, learn the road rules and culture. Travelers can ask local residents for advice; some information also is posted at www.asirt.org. The website's road report on Mexico, for instance, warns that drivers may use their left turn signal though they don't actually intend to turn left; they may be telling the car behind them that it's OK to pass.
"Many travel clinics do not address these issues in the pre-travel health advice consultation," Schlagenhauf says.
She advises overseas travelers, especially those bound for developing countries, to pack a first-aid kit and learn how to use it before leaving home. She also tells travelers to research travel health insurance and to find out whether their regular health insurance will cover expenses in the event of accidents overseas.
Healthy Traveler appears every other week. Kathleen Doheny can be reached at kathleen firstname.lastname@example.org.