Insurers press for jabs: Check sickness precautions before you go abroad, says Andrew Bibby

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The Independent Online
Setting out on holiday without having your jab or course of tablets may not only put your health at risk, it could also call into question the validity of the medical cover on your travel insurance.

The potential health risks of venturing even a little off the main tourist routes this summer were underlined this month when the Russian government admitted the scale of its current diphtheria epidemic.

Thomson, the largest British tour operator, cancelled all its package trips to Moscow and St Petersburg earlier this month, and the Government - while saying that the risk to travelling Britons 'would appear to be small' - advised people without previous diphtheria immunisation (mostly people born before 1943) not to travel without first having a full three-month course of vaccine. It said travellers who have been immunised should have booster doses if they expect to be living with or meeting local people in Russia.

The general principle of all types of insurance is that the policy-holder is required to take reasonable care.

According to Michele Ruxton, marketing director of the specialist firm Columbus Travel Insurance, this could mean following government vaccination advice before travelling. 'If someone goes to an area in which there's an epidemic without getting immunised, the underwriter would most likely consider this irresponsibility on the part of the insured,' she said.

'It is most unlikely that a claim would be paid if the insured had not taken the necessary precautions.'

Accident and General also says that claims could be queried in this sort of circumstance. 'If someone travelled to Russia today and didn't bother to get vaccinated for diphtheria, it could be questioned as to whether they had acted prudently,' a spokesperson said.

Other insurers take a rather more relaxed attitude. Martin Mills, business manager of Home and Overseas (the company whose travel insurance packages are marketed by many banks and building societies), feels that the issue is not a major one for his firm. 'You'd be covered. We have no exclusion if you haven't had the relevant jabs, or if they've run out,' he said.

He added that if his firm did start turning down claims, travellers might find the Insurance Ombudsman taking an interest. 'We'd have to prove that someone had been flagrantly irresponsible. In reality, the chance of us being able to prove it would be minimal,' he said. 'The onus would be on the insurer to show why a claim shouldn't be met,' a spokesperson for the Insurance Ombudsman scheme confirmed. No cases of this sort have yet been adjudicated by the Ombudsman.

Even without the insurance issue, however, it clearly makes sense to take medical precautions before heading off on holiday. The Department of Health's free booklet 'Health Advice for Travellers', distributed to post offices and travel agents, paints a depressing picture of a world full of potential dangers, not necessarily all well-known: visitors to Scandinavia are warned to guard against tick-borne encephalitis.

The Department of Health regularly updates the information in the booklet in an obscure corner (page *48867) of its Prestel Travel videotex service.