Travelers Lack Health Savvy, Survey Finds

Jerry Chandler Many travelers are unknowingly putting themselves at risk of contracting serious illnesses when traveling to developing countries, according to a new international survey. In a survey of 8,000 travelers, the European Travel Health Advisory Board found that 64 percent of those from the Uni

By: Jerry Chandler

Many travelers are unknowingly putting themselves at risk of contracting serious illnesses when traveling to developing countries, according to a new international survey.

In a survey of 8,000 travelers, the European Travel Health Advisory Board found that 64 percent of those from the United States did not seek travel health advice before going to an area with a risk of infectious disease.

“There is a 60 to 70 percent chance that a traveler will develop a health complaint on a trip to a developing country,” said Francesco Castelli, M.D., a co-author of the survey that was presented earlier this month at the 8th Conference of the International Society of Travel Medicine in New York.

“Our findings reveal that there is a clear need for improved awareness and education among travelers about health risks related to trips abroad,” said Castelli.

The survey findings come amid heightened awareness of potential health risks for travelers, in the wake of the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, and highlight an increasingly valuable role for travel agents.

Pat Funk, vice president of operations for the Association of Retail Travel Agents, said travel agents can help increase travelers’ awareness of potential health risks.

Funk said that when she was a frontline agent, sending people to places such as India or South America, the first thing she normally did was check to see what precautions were recommended.

Funk said agents can find information on health issues on Web sites such as the World Health Organization (www .who.int/en) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov).

Information can also be found on GDSs. Details on specific risks, as well as appropriate precautions and inoculations, have resided in GDS systems “forever,” said Nolan Burris, president of Visionistics, a Vancouver, B.C.-based travel-agency consulting firm.

American Society of Travel Agents’ president, Richard Copland, says that agents can also tap into www.astanet.com for related information.

Still, while information on health risks may be accessible, the survey by the European Travel Health Advisory Board suggests that many travelers are not using it.

For example, the survey found that 83 percent of Americans traveling abroad underestimate the risks of contracting the most common vaccine-preventable disease among travelers: hepatitis A.

Funk said agents can also help clients prepare for sojourns by offering the kind of travel insurance that includes coverage for health emergencies, including aeromedical evacuation to well-equipped hospitals with Western standards.

“That is a role the agent should play,” she said.

Burris agrees that advice is important but also believes it can go too far. For example, on the World Health Organization’s Web site, it notes that Florida has a risk of malaria.

“So, do we now tell all our clients they shouldn’t go to Florida?” he asks. Funk also notes that agents can’t do it all.

“Travel agents aren’t doctors,” she said. “You have to lay some responsibility on the client.”

The choice on what consumers do when they travel and how they prepare, ultimately, is theirs.

“It’s not up to the agent to say, ‘Don’t go there,’ agrees Copland. “It’s up to the agent to deliver all the pertinent information, and let the individual make their own judgment.”

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