Asia encompasses both sophisticated cities and Third World conditions, so staying healthy requires a nuanced approach. “It’s really a question of urban versus rural travel,” says Dr. Bradley Connor of Travel Health Services, a clinic in New York that focuses on destination-specific travel precautions and treatments of travel-related illnesses. “If you’re heading to cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai or Seoul, make sure you’re caught up on your basic travel vaccines—shots for Hepatitis A and B, tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis—and a polio booster if you haven’t already had one.”
If you plan on backpacking through the jungles of Borneo, say, or any other rural area, dangers are both airborne and land-based. Your biggest enemy in the countryside is mosquitoes. Day-biting mosquitoes can carry both dengue fever and chikungunya, while nocturnal mosquitoes can carry malaria. Also transmitted by mosquitoes: Japanese encephalitis, found in many agricultural areas across Asia. Though rare—only 3 percent of mosquitoes are infected—it does carry a 50 percent mortality rate, so it’s best to get the vaccine. Rabies, a growing problem in Asia, is also a threat. “If you’re bitten by a rabid animal, you’ll have to get yourself to a medical center that can administer rabies immune globulin, and it’s not easy to find in rural Asia,” says Connor. “It can really change your trip plans quickly.” He recommends getting a three-dose pre-exposure vaccine.
Mosquitoes carrying dengue fever lurk in cities, too, especially around stagnant water that often pools at construction sites. There’s no vaccine for the disease, which causes a rash and flu-like symptoms for about a week, but insect repellent works well as a preventative.
As for the dreaded avian flu, things are quiet now—there hasn’t been a major outbreak in Asia since 2009—but the Centers for Disease Control still recommends avoiding poultry markets and backyard bird farms, while Connor advises staying up-to-date and even ahead of schedule on current flu shots, since tropical locations have a year-round flu season. In the States, flu shots can be available as early as August.
Travel Health Services is at 50 E. 69th St., New York; 212-734-3000; travelhealth.net.