This will be the first of a few brief posts on keeping healthy while wandering strange lands. The current concern about the spread of the Zika virus was my trigger. I hope these simple ideas help somebody enjoy their travels without fear of being infected by one of the many terrible diseases transmitted via mosquitoes.
I am not a doctor, just a traveller. If in doubt about anything I write discuss it with your doctor before acting.
While sitting in a doctor's office in shock after hearing the word "leukaemia" in early 2002 I was already making my bucket list. I had been brought up to live frugally and spend responsibly, always saving for a rainy day. I had put off my urge to travel the world but now I reckoned the rain was coming down in buckets. I started planning my first 'round the world trip at in that office.
I discovered swiftly I had a new problem apart from finances. I now had a flawed immune system. That meant world travel, exposing myself to foreign bugs and diseases, was rather unwise in the doctor's opinion. I decided that was a risk worth taking, but I also decided to use a bit of common sense.
After wandering through more than 50 countries since that day including regions with lots of mosquitoes such as South America, South East Asia, China, India, Egypt and Yucatan I have not caught anything worse than the occasional cold or Delhi Belly. I tend to believe my OCD methods for mosquito protection are a significant part of the reason for my good health.
On my earliest trips I asked my doctor to prescribe Malarone. Eventually I discontinued that medication because I am aware of the possible nasty side effects and, although effective for malaria, Malarone would not have helped against other mosquito vector diseases such as these:
Ross River Virus
West Nile Virus
That is not an exhaustive list. There are many other mosquito vector diseases, some unique to certain countries.
For that reason I have developed some standard habits in regions where mosquitoes are a problem. These may seem over-the-top to some, but they have worked very effectively for me.
- After my morning shower I apply a light skin lotion as a base. Over that, if appropriate to the climate, I apply a sunblock. I finish with a light coating of 80% DEET to all exposed areas, including at least the face, back of the neck, ears, ankles and scalp. That strength of DEET is effective but can also cause skin problems. Applying the skin lotion first allows a more even spread of a thin layer and minimises the side effects.
- If necessary I repeat the lotion and DEET applications if I have been for a swim or have another shower later in the day.
- I wear a hat or cap (I am bald, with an excellent landing strip for unseen mosquitoes), long-sleeved shirts and long trousers at dawn and dusk, with as little skin left exposed as is reasonably possible. My clothing is lightweight in the tropics, but not so light that mosquitoes can drill through it.
- I make sure that there are no mosquitoes in the rooms I stay in and demand insect spray from the proprietors if necessary. I usually have it with me as insect spray is one of the first things I buy in a new country on arrival.
That may seem like a lot of messing about, but it adds only five minutes to my morning routine and lets me wander mosquito regions with confidence. Of course, there are no guarantees. It only needs one mosquito to get through my defences to infect me but that is a risk I have accepted. You must make your own decisions.
Some practical points. Although some airlines allow aerosols on board these days I have found some do not. For that reason I use a DEET gel and buy it in tubes of less than 100gm to be sure I have no problems with airport security. I use Bushman's 80% DEET but any equivalent would do the job. Similarly, if you prefer an aerosol it is better to buy a local insect aerosol on arrival in a country than to try to get one through airport security.
I have also found it wise to look for air-conditioned rooms in tropical countries, not just for the comfort of a cool night's sleep, but because many hostels and hotels in those regions do not have fly screens on the windows. Leaving the window open for night breezes in a room without air-conditioning also provides access for mosquitoes while you sleep.
Enjoy your travels in good health.