Travel Medicine: What You Need to Know to Safely Travel Abroad Again

July 30, 2021
Infectious Disease News

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Edward McManus and Dr. Donald Allegra.

As we begin shedding masks and restrictions in the U.S. slowly loosen, there is a sense of anticipation. After more than a year of isolation, people have pent up demand to see new places. International tourism is on the rise. Many business and leisure travelers are excited to return to popular destinations like Argentina, Costa Rica, Europe, Peru, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam, to name a few. Airlines, hotels, and cruise lines eagerly prepare to welcome people back. But despite the world’s “Great Reopening,” it is vital that we move forward with caution and education.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 160 million Americans are fully vaccinated.* That prompts a return to some normalcy. However, it’s essential to consider your health and safety when traveling internationally, especially in a world with varying COVID-19 regulations and emerging variants. ID Care’s Dr. Edward McManus and Dr. Donald Allegra explain what travel medicine is, the benefits of going to a travel medicine specialist, and why seeing one before traveling overseas is crucial.   

What is Travel Medicine?

Travel medicine is the field of medicine dedicated to keeping travelers safe and healthy. This vital health service focuses on evaluating international travel-related risks, how to stay healthy while traveling, and treating diseases and health conditions resulting from travel. It encompasses everything from travel immunizations and destination-specific safety protocols to issues that can arise from jet lag and altitude sickness.  

The best type of travel medicine specialist is an infectious disease doctor. Infectious disease doctors have expertise in the origin and treatment of infections and chronic diseases, which is essential for advising travelers on how to prevent illness and travel safely. They leverage and integrate that knowledge into personalized travel medicine consultations and are also the most experienced to provide effective care if a traveler returns ill.  

What Does a Travel Medicine Specialist Do?

A travel medicine specialist focuses on risk prevention and post-travel care to help you prepare for the safest trip possible and reduce your chances of getting sick. Travel medicine specialists have extensive training and hands-on experience with illnesses and health problems that are indigenous to other countries. The type of trip you take will determine what’s involved in your initial travel medicine consultation. Factors to consider include the trip duration, the itinerary destination(s), the type of trip, and your underlying health conditions.  

A travel medicine visit for an international business traveler can look different from that of someone who is studying overseas, going on a safari, or partaking in a community outreach project. No matter the trip type, everyone can benefit from travel medicine. “The very existence of COVID-19 and its variants is proof that we live in a world where travel is easily accessible,” says Dr. McManus. “That’s why it’s so important for travelers to keep their health, safety, and well-being top-of-mind.”

What are the Key Risks of Resuming International Travel, Including COVID-19?

The CDC reports that 43%-79% of travelers to low- and middle-income countries – many of which are highly traveled destinations – become ill with a travel-related health problem. Especially when coupled with COVID-19 and more specifically, the Delta variant, travel becomes increasingly complex and uncertain. Although the United States has nearly 50% of its residents fully vaccinated (as of 7/15/21), rates abroad vary tremendously. It’s important to remember, even if you’re vaccinated, that you may be around a large population that doesn’t have access to the vaccine yet. Some countries, like Israel, have very high vaccination rates. Others, like Thailand and India, are incredibly low. The situation is constantly changing, and conflicting recommendations from the leading authorities can make travel planning confusing.  

Travel medicine specialists, like those at ID Care, are monitoring what’s happening with COVID-19 globally in real time, so they can concisely provide the most up-to-date, accurate information to patients. “You can’t travel safely without a COVID-19 vaccine,” says Dr. McManus. “Clinical trials found a vaccine efficacy rate of more than 90 percent. Even now, with the Delta variant driving numbers up, breakthrough cases are rare. It’s very reassuring, but it’s still important to take the proper precautions.”

Since COVID-19 restrictions and requirement vary by country, the CDC provides an online tool that provides destination-specific information. Some countries, like New Zealand, are completely closed to U.S. travelers. Many others are open with quarantine and/or testing requirements in place. All international travelers returning home to the United States are required to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test or documentation of recovery, regardless of vaccination status. The test must be taken within 3 days prior to re-entry into the U.S.   

Is a COVID-19 Vaccination or “Vaccine Passport” Required to Travel Abroad?

The New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) recently launched an app that makes it easy for individuals in the state to access a recognizable, endorsable record of being vaccinated. Although there aren’t plans to create a U.S. vaccine passport or a standardized international vaccine passport, the rules do vary by country. For example, France, Italy, and Ireland will begin requiring proof of vaccination to go into a restaurant soon. Many European countries are expected to follow suit. It is always best to consult with your travel medicine specialist who can help guide you on required vaccines and documentation. 

Why is it Vital that International Travelers See a Travel Medicine Specialist?

A travel medicine specialist knows the nuances of a particular destination and what’s needed before a traveler arrives. For example, the health protocols for someone traveling to Machu Pichu can be different from someone going to the Peruvian rainforest, despite that both destinations are in the same country. These are the top reasons to see a travel medicine specialist like those at ID Care:    

  • Prevent Illness: get a customized preventative care plan to travel safely –including preventing blood clots, jet lag, and other conditions as well as reduce the risk of getting sick overseas.   
  • Get Educated: learn about food and water safety, environmental factors to consider, and how to monitor for symptoms of illness upon your return home.   
  • Receive Medication Packing Tips: know which medications to travel with and what to avoid at your destination. Many countries have counterfeit  

over-the-counter (OTC) medications. A travel medicine specialist prepares you for other health-related issues that can arise, like traveler’s diarrhea or bug bites, by providing appropriate prescriptions. Traveler’s diarrhea affects 30%-70% of travelers, depending on when and where you’re traveling. It is even more prevalent in developing countries.  

  • Obtain Necessary Vaccinations: get immunizations for serious travel-related diseases. Yellow fever is a mandatory – but often hard to find – vaccination for travelers going to Africa or South America. ID Care has the yellow fever vaccination readily available for travel medicine patients and will provide an International Certificate of Vaccination. Also known as a “yellow card”, this certificate is important because it’s official proof that you’re properly inoculated. ID Care’s travel medicine specialists go a step further to review your status with important U.S. vaccines and, if necessary, get travelers updated so they can travel safely.  
  • Evaluate Overall Health: discuss pre-existing conditions and learn best practices for managing them while traveling. For example, a traveler with an underlying lung condition benefits from medical advice on coping with low oxygen environments like airplanes that they will be on for an extended period. 

What Should You Be Aware of Relating to Travel and Risk of Infectious Disease?

Every traveler should be aware that travel medicine is growing in importance as the complexity of travel increases based on risks specific to different global destinations. It is crucial to see a travel health specialist, especially if you’re traveling internationally for more than two weeks, have a complicated itinerary or underlying health concerns, or will be going outside of Western Europe. “Providing a laundry list of what to do versus identifying each individual’s specific needs are two very different things. That’s why a personalized travel health plan from one of our travel medicine specialists is so beneficial,” says Dr. Allegra. Adds Dr. McManus. “Additionally, immigrants returning to their home country should also see a travel medicine specialist. It only takes about a year to lose immunity after leaving an endemic area. Someone who grew up in India but has lived in the United States for 10 years is at just as much risk for malaria when traveling as someone who was born here.”  

When Should You Book a Travel Medicine Consultation?

Booking a travel medicine consultation is an essential part of the planning process when you’re traveling overseas. It’s just as important as ensuring you have a valid passport. It is best to find a travel medicine specialist as soon as your trip is confirmed and book a consultation at least one month in advance of your travel date as some protocols require more than one appointment. Although travel medicine is about much more than just vaccinations and medications, both play an important part in the timing of your visit. Here’s why:  

  • Vaccinations: vaccines don’t always take effect right away, and sometimes more than one dose is required. If you’re entering a place where you’re at risk for disease, it’s vital that you time the inoculations properly. Some important travel vaccines are hard to find. It’s important to locate a travel medicine specialist who knows what you need and can administer it.  
  • Prescription Medications: depending on your destination, a travel medicine specialist may recommend a round of preventative care antibiotics for specific travel diseases. Malaria, for example, impacts about 2,000 U.S. travelers annually and is prevalent in many areas including Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. It can be prevented with prescription medication but must be started before your departure. 

However, don’t disregard the importance of seeing a travel medicine specialist if you’re less than a month out from your trip. ID Care’s travel medicine specialists can help maximize your health and minimize your risk even if your consultation and departure date are close in timing. But for maximum benefits, try to plan your consultation at least four weeks in advance.  

How is Travel Medicine an Essential Part of What ID Care Offers as Infectious Disease Specialists?

The trend of authentic “off-the-grid” and experiential travel has gained popularity over the years and is poised to resume. Travelers who once focused on European city centers are branching out to explore developing countries where infectious diseases are a big problem. Dr. Allegra reports that about 8% of people who go to a developing country seek health care either at their destination, or when they return because of an infectious disease they picked up while traveling. As infectious disease specialists, the ID Care team is the most well-positioned to advise travelers before traveling on how to stay healthy and minimize risks, provide active guidance during the trip, and assist with health-related issues that may arise after returning home.   

What is Distinctive About ID Care’s Travel Medicine Program and What is Necessary Before, During, and After Traveling?

ID Care’s travel medicine program has a uniquely patient-centered focus. The overall health and well-being of each traveler is considered – it’s not a one-size-fits all approach and just considering a checklist of vaccines. It is vital to consider the many ways the ID Care team helps international travelers pre-travel, during travel, and upon returning.  

  • Pre-Travel: at your initial travel medicine consultation, ID Care’s travel health specialist listens intently to really understand your current health status, assess risk, review the itinerary, identify destination-specific considerations, recommend optimal vaccines and medications, travel insurance, and more – all to develop a personalized travel plan that will keep the traveler safe and healthy. This includes evaluating key scenarios that could pose a problem and then providing a plan to mitigate the risk of something happening. 

ID Care also evaluates the cost of various vaccines and medications – many of which are not covered by insurance – so they prioritize recommendations based on discussing your itinerary details versus a standardized country-specific list to ensure cost effectiveness. “For example, a Japanese Encephalitis vaccine is over $800, but cases are rare, especially in more urban areas. So, we are more likely to recommend the vaccine if you’re visiting rice paddies versus exploring a large Southeast Asian city,” says Dr. Allegra.  

  • While Traveling: patients can communicate with their ID Care travel medicine specialist if they’re feeling ill overseas – a unique benefit. If in-person care is necessary, your specialist can help advise where to go for care. The local hospital may not be the best place. Dr. McManus and Dr. Allegra also caution travelers to be mindful of your food and water sources, sanitize your hands frequently, and pay close attention to environmental factors that can affect your health. 
  • Post-Travel: patients may need to return to the office for important multi-dose vaccines. Also, if a traveler returns home feeling ill, or has contracted an infectious disease – a bacteria, virus, parasite, or fungus – common when traveling to remote areas, ID Care’s infectious disease experts and travel medicine specialists are poised to help them recover quickly. ID Care is one of a select few practices in the country that have the knowledge and hands-on expertise related to both common and rare infectious diseases. Many other doctors who handle pre-travel planning don’t have the experience to care for patients who return home ill and refer their sick post-travel patients to ID Care specialists.

What Services Does ID Care Offer for Business or Group Travelers Resuming International Trips?

After living in a world that discouraged in-person interaction with others for over a year, both personally and professionally, there is still some concern among groups about traveling abroad again. In a time when simple, once-common formalities like a handshake are now worrisome, a return to group travel may be overwhelming. ID Care offers educational group programs that address important concerns.  

The goal of these programs is to provide consistency on how any group – from business travelers to church or mission groups – can have the safest trip possible. Modest-sized groups can meet with a travel medicine specialist in a private conference room at any of ID Care’s 10 locations. For larger groups, ID Care’s specialists will lead educational programs at the company’s place of business. “It can be unsettling for employees to receive conflicting information about things like safe travel practices and important vaccines. Our sessions provide consistency and peace-of-mind, so travelers know they’re getting the most accurate, up-to-date information,” says Dr. McManus.    

ID Care also provides assistance to large corporations which may have their own in-house travel physicians and clinics. The practice’s train-the-trainer type sessions are customized to give more in-depth information to enhance the staff’s existing knowledge on how to approach travel medicine. On-site employer crisis management sessions are another offering. They give assistance to companies with sick employees overseas, guiding them on how to handle these situations in the safest way possible so their employees get better quickly.   

Which ID Care Locations Provide Travel Medicine Services?

Travel medicine services are available at all 10 ID Care locations throughout New Jersey. Several of the practice’s physicians, including Dr. Ubhi, Dr. Snepar, and Dr. Allegra, have special accreditations, enhanced experience, and training. That makes the ID Care team some of the most authoritative travel medicine specialists in the country, with a team of over 40 board-certified infectious disease experts across locations. 

How Can ID Care’s Travel Medicine Specialists Help You?

ID Care is New Jersey’s leading travel medicine and infectious disease practice. Its team of over 70 providers can address any international travel-related concern: from foods to avoid and water safety to environmental concerns, preventative care, all travel vaccinations, and more. With 10 convenient outpatient locations throughout New Jersey, scheduling a travel medicine consultation is easy. Plan ahead and simply call 908-281-0221 or visit idcare.com to schedule your travel medicine consultation today.