An estimated 1.9 million American children travel internationally each year and the number is increasing according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Children generally face the same illnesses and risks as adults including diarrhea, hepatitis A, typhoid, E. coli, malaria and yellow fever, and the effects can range from mild to severe.
To mitigate and manage health problems of international travelers, there is a specialized area in the medical field called Travel Medicine. If your child is traveling overseas, it’s important to educate yourself, consult with your child’s pediatrician and take action against the illnesses he could encounter. Some illnesses may have a greater effect on a child than an adult.
While many hospitals offer Travel Medicine Clinics, they often are adult-centered as opposed to child-centered. Ideally, the doctor most familiar with your child’s health needs and history – his or her pediatrician – has the service capability within their practice to help you manage your child’s health before and after traveling abroad.
Travel Medicine can have the greatest impact when it is a priority on your list of to-dos well in advance of your trip. It should not wait until the last minute, particularly if your trip is going to exceed three days or you are traveling to a rural or less westernized country. Vaccinations for those scenarios often require time for the body to respond and be fully effective. Ideally, book an appointment with your pediatrician three months prior to your trip.
The first step I suggest to patients is to visit the CDC website. There is a section on the site where you can search by country to receive specific guidance on the illnesses to which you may be exposed, the vaccinations suggested or required and any current health notices in that location. Once armed with information on the risks, you will be ahead of the game when you see the pediatrician.
Your pediatrician has the benefit of having your child’s vaccination history on hand to avoid administering any she does not need. Depending on the age of your child and your travel destination, necessary vaccines may include hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid, rabies, polio, Japanese encephalitis virus and yellow fever. In other cases, there may be medications, such as an antibiotic or anti-malarial, that the doctor would prescribe for your child to take during the trip as a preventative measure.
Your pediatrician also is aware of current allergies, prescriptions and other health issues specific to your child. He will be sure you have the correct prescriptions so your child is prepared for the duration of the trip. He also might, for instance, inquire about your child’s EpiPen and whether it is up to date. Lastly, he can provide you a list of suggested over-the-counter medications should you face health issues commonly encountered at your destination, such as travelers diarrhea, motion sickness or altitude sickness.
It’s not uncommon for parents to think that they’re completely out of the woods and should have no real concerns about their child’s health once they have returned home. Any illness, especially one with fever or severe diarrhea, that appears within one month of travelling abroad, should be approached more cautiously due to that travel. If this occurs, it is advisable that you contact your child’s pediatrician sooner rather than later.
The greatest travel memories are created when everyone in the family is healthy. Set yourself up to relax and enjoy your adventure with confidence that your child’s health is protected.
Dr. Levin is active in running and yoga and the father of two daughters, ages three and nearly one. He has been a pediatrician in Chicago’s northern suburbs for more than seven years. While he treats most pediatric issues, he has special interest on the topics of ADD/ADHD, asthma, allergies, eczema and travel medicine. He currently treats patients for PediaTrust/Elm Street Pediatrics a new private partnership of seven pediatric practices located in the north and northwest suburbs of Chicago.
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