Getting the travel bug

Long-haul travel is on the increase yet many people aren't being told about the health risks, according to new research.

Fancy an azure sky, silver sands and palm-fringed tropical beaches, rather than your normal, run-of-the-mill package to Ibiza or Corfu? Fine - but bear in mind that without precautions, long-haul travel could seriously damage your health, disable or even kill you. And don't rely on a travel agent to tell you about the health hazards; research shows that most agents are keener to sell the packages than to spell out the health risks.

Long-haul travel is now at record levels among Britons, having grown by 52 per cent since 1987. In the early days of package tours, the only health risk was a touch of Benidorm belly, but today's travellers are exposed to a whole new range of sometimes lethal diseases: malaria, yellow fever, dengue, hepatitis, typhoid, Japanese encephalitis and rabies.

According to researchers, many travellers are getting on to the plane without the tablets, vaccines or knowledge needed to protect them from often lethal diseases, because travel agents are failing to warn them of the dangers.

Covert researchers who asked more than 200 travel agents about package holidays in Kenya and a flight to India found that six out of 10 agencies gave no spontaneous warning about health risks for the areas involved. (In Kenya the main risk is from malaria; in India, diarrhoea is suffered by one in two travellers and can ruin a holiday.) Even after prompting, only 70 per cent of agencies offered general health advice, says Dr Ron Behrens, consultant in tropical and travel medicine at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, London, and co-author of a report on the research with Peter Grabowski of the University of Luton.

"It shows that travel agents provide health advice inconsistently and mention health risks only when prompted. For travellers' safety the industry needs to draw attention to health risks associated with its products consistently and effectively," they say in their report.

Dr Behrens says that travel agents are legally obliged to give information about all aspects of the product they are selling, including any hazards or risks. "Yet most travel agents simply do not take it upon themselves to warn people. The travel industry does not want to frighten people off. Of course they should not give specific health advice, but they should point out the risks and get people to seek further advice, either from a GP, travel clinic or chemist."

The people most at risk, according to Dr Behrens, are "novice" travellers - people who used to visit Benidorm but now go to the Gambia, and are travelling to tropical areas without taking any health precautions. "It happens regularly," he says. "We don't know the figures but any flight will have a number of people who simply haven't been told about vaccines or tablets they need."

The Independent's travel editor, Simon Calder, has read the study, and agrees it gives cause for concern. But he has reservations about the researchers' conclusions: "None of the covert encounters ended with the sale of a holiday, so I'm not sure that the research tells the whole story. I've just bought a package to the Gambia, and when I paid for it the travel agent warned me of the health risks and then insisted that I signed a form saying I'd been told. In my experience, this is standard practice for any travel agency that wishes to avoid being sued."

A spokeswoman for the Association of British Travel Agents says, "Clearly a travel agency is not a doctor and people may want to speak to a doctor for specific advice relating to the individual which can differ between people. We have worked with the Hospital for Tropical Diseases on a tropical health line number which provides information for countries around the world. Ultimately, one should seek medical advice."

In response to the urgent need for advice, the Hospital for Tropical Diseases has now launched a course in travel medicine for GPs and specialist nurses - the second of its kind in the world. "Doctors and nurses have never received any proper training in this area," says Dr Behrens: "All they do is look at a list - the expertise isn't there. People need not only advice about vaccines but also knowledge about how to prevent diarrhoea, skin infections and insect bites, and advice to practise safe sex." The hospital is expecting 80 professionals to start a week-long session in September.

Easily the biggest health risk for British travellers abroad is of being involved in a road accident, but among diseases malaria is the most harmful. Around 2,500 people a year are treated for malaria in Britain, although doctors believe the real figure could be twice that, because of under- reporting. The incidence of the disease has increased significantly since the Seventies when there were only a few hundred cases annually.

"The bugs we have are becoming more resistant and more people are exposed to them because more of us are travelling to tropical parts. There is improved transport, people have more leisure time, and transport is cheap," says Dr Behrens. Professor David Bradley, director of the Malaria Reference Laboratory of the Public Health Laboratory Service, says: "In a year or so there may well be some improvements in what is available for chemoprophylaxis. People are working on treatments which are more effective and with fewer side-effects."

Dengue, or breakbone fever, is a mosquito-born infection and one of a new wave of so-called emerging viruses sweeping the tropics. It can be fatal, particularly among children, and has spread from central and south America to parts of the US. London's Hospital for Tropical Diseases now handles around 20 cases a year.

Disease is not the only risk tourists face on long hauls: the flights themselves can be a health hazard. Inactivity during a long flight increases the risk of deep-vein thrombosis, with pregnant women among those at risk. The Drugs and Therapeutic Bulletin warns that stress and excitement can trigger angina, and people on medication can run into problems due to confusion over changing time zones.

Cabin pressure at 35,000ft can cause pain and perforation of the eardrum if tubes are blocked; in patients who have recently had surgery, internal gas expansion can cause pain and stretch or even burst stitches.

But despite such health hazards, the unstoppable trend in travel is to places where risks are high. And for most people, the pleasure outweighs the potential painn

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Britons buy more than 30 million handsets each year, keeping them for an average of 18 months
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Alloysious Massaquoi, 'G' Hastings and Kayus Bankole of Young Fathers are the surprise winners of this year's Mercury Music Prize
musicThe surprise winners of the Mercury Prize – and a very brief acceptance speech
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
News
video
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Primary Teachers Required in King's Lynn

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teachers needed in King's Ly...

    Primary Teachers needed in Ely

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary Teacher needed in the Ely ar...

    Teaching Assistant to work with Autistic students

    £60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Randstad Education Leicester ...

    KS2 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Cambridge: KS2 Teacher needed in Peterborough a...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
    Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

    Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

    The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
    Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

    The school that means business

    Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
    10 best tablets

    The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

    They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
    Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

    Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

    The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
    Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

    Pete Jenson's a Different League

    Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
    John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
    The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

    The killer instinct

    Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
    Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

    Clothing the gap

    A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

    The Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain