Kalamaoo County

Health and Community Services Department


Advice for Backpackers

This advice identifies a few key points you should consider in advance of your trip - it is not comprehensive.

Backpacking refers to self-organized trips, which usually involve traveling on foot or public transport and staying in simple cheap accommodation. This can expose travelers to additional health risks. The term 'backpacker' is now not very specific since the traditional 'backpack' or rucksack is now often used by other groups of travelers including those on organized holidays and expeditions.

Beware of the risk of accidents
Accidents are very common when trekking and also when traveling on poor roads in badly maintained vehicles. Motorcycling can be extremely hazardous.

Contamination of food and water
This is a major cause of illness in travelers in particular travelers' diarrhea. Unless certain of the purity of the local water supply, stick to boiled or bottled water and avoid ice in drinks. Alternatively, water can be sterilized with iodine drops/tablets or with a quality filter. Dishes and cutlery should ideally be washed with sterilized water. Hot tea, coffee, beer and wine are usually safe.

Ensure that milk has been pasteurized and that cheese, cream and ice cream are made from milk that has been pasteurized. Peel all fruit, eat only cooked vegetables and avoid salads.

Ensure that seafood, fish and meat are thoroughly cooked and eaten hot whenever possible. Avoid leftovers. Wash hands before eating or handling food and always after using the toilet.

Mosquito, other insect and animal bites
These can be minimized through wearing suitable clothing, using repellents and a mosquito net. Do not approach stray dogs that are frequently not as friendly as at home.

Unsafe sex
Particularly, but not exclusively, unsafe sex with commercial sex workers will put travelers at risk of serious infections including HIV.

A comprehensive first aid kit is important
You should consider including something for simple diarrhea, sufficient anti-malarial tablets, possibly an antibiotic, and emergency malarial treatment if going to areas remote from medical facilities.

Culture shock
This can be very real. Family or social difficulties at home and psychological problems, including alcoholism, make adapting difficult. Time differences between continents might increase isolation when it is difficult to maintain contact with friends and relatives. A situation that is exciting and welcome to one person can be daunting to another.

Possible problems include adjusting to a different climate, unusual food, religious and cultural differences, separation from family, changes in living standards, different social amenities, language differences, coming to terms with poverty, begging, and compulsory movement restrictions for safety or political reasons.

Being open to new and different cultures and being patient, rather than critical, will help the traveler adapt to new and challenging adventures.

Vaccinations take time. Consult your doctor or nurse well before departure ideally 8 weeks in advance.

Tetanus and diphtheria vaccination is important for those likely to sustain injuries (tetanus) or mix closely with the local population (diphtheria). For countries where these diseases are still common you should to receive boosters every 10 years and everyone should have completed their normal British childhood schedule.

There is an increasing risk of tuberculosis for those visiting many of the high-risk areas and when mixing with the local population. Remember protection from BCG vaccine against tuberculosis is only achieved after about 4-6 weeks. Boosters are not normally required.

Meningococcal type A C W Y vaccine is often advisable for backpackers visiting those risk areas in sub-Saharan Africa who will be mixing closely with the local population.

Hepatitis A and typhoid vaccines are important for backpackers who are often unable to be scrupulously careful about their food and water hygiene in risk areas.

Hepatitis B vaccine can be useful for those staying for longer periods in higher risk areas and if accidents requiring suturing, surgery or sexual risk taking is anticipated.

Influenza vaccine can be considered for those who might get a more severe illness such as those with existing chest problems. Remember the 'flu' season in the Southern Hemisphere is from April to November.

Japanese B encephalitis is spread by mosquitoes and is sometimes advised for those spending longer periods in risk, especially rural areas, as is often the case with the more adventurous traveler.

Rabies vaccination can be important if you are going to be more than a day or two from good medical facilities.

Yellow fever is a mosquito borne disease and occurs most commonly in jungle areas. It is therefore more likely in travelers going to remote areas. The disease is not present in Asia. A yellow fever vaccination certificate is necessary for crossing borders in many parts of Africa and South America.

Malaria prevention
When you cannot be sure that your accommodation will ensure good mosquito protection, you must consider taking a good mosquito net. Sensible clothing to protect the skin from bites and careful use of mosquito repellents is also important. If your advisor recommends anti-malaria tablets make sure you take then correctly. Some backpackers will be wandering a long way from medical facilities - this is when carrying an emergency supply of malaria treatment may be important.

Kalamazoo County Health & Community Services is committed to providing equitable, culturally competent care to all individuals served, regardless of race, age, sex, color, national origin, religion, height, weight, marital status, political affiliation, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

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