There’s nothing quite like the summer holidays. It’s an opportunity to put your feet up after a long year and a chance to explore exciting places with family and friends. However, apart from the expensive, summer holidays can expose the unsuspecting to a variety of health hazards.
Jackie Maimin, CEO of the ICPA discusses 10 holiday health hazards that South Africans should be aware of this summer.
1. Rabies – Rabies is spread from animals to humans. Domestic dogs are most responsible for transmission of the virus to humans. The virus affects the brain and it is transmitted through direct animal contact involving scratches, bites or licks on mucous membranes of the lips or eyes. Importantly, transmission cannot happen through intact skin, meaning that touching, petting or being close to animals is not a risk factor for transmission.
Rabies can be prevented, but not treated. Rabies can be controlled in dogs (and cats) through rabies vaccination.
Leave stray or unknown dogs and cats alone. Loose animals are more likely to have been exposed to rabies and to attack others. Keep pets away from strays, too.
Leave wild animals alone. Avoid wild animals even if they appear friendly, and do not coax a wild animal to eat from your hand. Do not fear wild animals, just respect and stay away from them.
2. Bilharzia/schistosomiasis – This is a disease caused by parasitic worms. Parasites enter the body when a person is swimming, washing, or paddling in contaminated water. Drinking the water or eating food that a person has washed in untreated water can increase the risk of infection.
Bilharzia can affect the intestines, urinary system (increasing the risk of bladder cancer), liver, spleen, lungs, spinal cord and the brain.
Avoid swimming or wading in freshwater when in areas in which schistosomiasis occurs. Swimming in the ocean and in chlorinated swimming pools is safe.
Drink safe water. Although schistosomiasis is not transmitted by swallowing contaminated water, if your mouth or lips come in contact with water containing the parasites, you could become infected
3. Insect bites and bee stings – These will usually cause a red, swollen lump to develop on the skin. This may be painful and in some cases can be very itchy. Some people have a mild allergic reaction and a larger area of skin around the bite or sting becomes swollen, red and painful.
African trypanosomiasis, also known as sleeping sickness, is a disease spread by an infected tsetse fly, found in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa.
Avoid bites by using insect repellents, particularly during the evenings and at night when they are most likely to bite. Insect repellents containing DET are recommended.
4. Malaria – Nearly half of the world’s population is at risk of malaria. With mosquito-borne diseases increasing due to global warming, the World Health Organisation is focusing on prevention to reduce the death toll of a disease that continues to kill more than 400 000 people annually, with over 200 million reported malaria cases every year.
Avoid being outside after dark or sleeping outside. In your accommodation keep your curtains and insect screens on your widows closed. If you are sleeping in a tent, make sure you keep the net screens closed and ensure there are no holes anywhere. Keep the room or tent door closed at all times.
Even if you have done everything right, there always remains a small risk of contracting malaria. Chat to your local community pharmacist if you are planning a trip to a malaria area for malaria prevention medication.
5. Hepatitis – Unless treated properly, inflammation from chronic hepatitis can lead to cell damage and, eventually, liver cancer. Hepatitis A and E are spread through contaminated food or water, while types B, C and D are transmitted through blood and body fluids.
If you plan to travel to countries with poor sanitation, you’ll want to make sure you practice good hygiene, including washing your hands after bathroom trips, drinking previously boiled water or purified bottled water and avoiding uncooked foods and undercooked meat.
6. Marine stings and bites – Oceans contain many creatures with stingers, spines or sharp teeth. Some creatures have particularly frequent or dangerous interactions with humans. Many of these animals live in warm, shallow water where swimmers and snorkelers are likely to encounter them.
Stingray stings usually cause intense pain, nausea, weakness, and fainting. In rare cases, a person who is stung might have trouble breathing or even die.
Most stings from jellyfish, anemones, and corals cause rashes and sometimes blisters. You may also experience headaches, chest pain, muscle pain and sweating.
Don’t touch marine creatures. Check any warnings signs before entering the sea and wear shoes when walking in rock pools.
7. Snakebites – There are over 130 different species of snakes in South Africa. Most of them aren’t dangerous to humans. However, it is not a good idea to disturb them or pick them up as this is when snake bites most often occur. The most dangerous snakes in South Africa are the Black Mamba, Puff Adder, Cape Cobra, Boomslang and Rinkhals.
Different snakes carry different symptoms. Snakebite victims may experience dizziness, difficulty in swallowing and breathing, drooping eyelids and nausea, burning pain, swelling, bleeding from the nose and mucus membrane.
In the event of a snakebite, remove the victim’s rings and tight clothing, keep them calm and as still as possible and get the victim to a hospital as soon as possible and in a safe manner.
If bitten get to a medical facility as soon as possible. Try and take a picture of the snake – identifying the snake will expedite treatment.
8. Parasites – Parasites are organisms that live in and feed off a living host. There are a variety of parasitic worms that can take up residence in humans. Among them are flatworms, thread worms, tape worms, and roundworms. Other parasites to be wary of
The risk of parasitic infection is higher in rural or developing regions. The risk is great in places where food and drinking water may be contaminated and sanitation is poor.
Symptoms include nausea lack of appetite, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, weight loss and general weakness.
De-worm yourself, family members and all pets once or twice every year.
9. Foodborne illnesses – Bacteria can contaminate food, making it harmful to eat. Food can be contaminating at any time during growth, harvesting or slaughter, processing, storage, shipping and even during preparation in a restaurant or home kitchen.
Infants, children, pregnant women and the elderly are more likely to develop foodborne illnesses than others. Symptoms comprise of vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, fever and chills.
Examples of foodborne illnesses include salmonella, listeria, campylobacter, shigella and vibrio.
Make sure your food is cooked thoroughly. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with warm, soapy water before and after handling any raw meats, fruits and vegetables. Wash utensils and disinfect surfaces before and after use. Don’t defrost food on the kitchen counter.
10. Sun dangers – At least 20 000 South Africans are diagnosed annually with non-melanoma skin cancers, and approximately 1 500 are diagnosed with melanoma. “It is vital to put sunscreen on every time you venture out into the sun,” says Maimin. “Especially for children – and babies younger than a year should ideally not be out in the sun and you should not apply sunscreen to babies under 6 months. Ask your pharmacist for advice on the best sunscreen for your skin type or look for CANSA approved sunscreen products at your local independent community pharmacy and choose one with an SPF between 30 and 50 – the higher the better, especially for fairer skins.”
If you’re brave enough to step outdoors this summer, first check with your pharmacist about which medicines you should pack into your medicine box and whether any vaccinations are recommended for your destination.
Make sure you have travel insurance if travelling abroad or to far-flung places which will ensure you get the best treatment if you become ill or have an accident which requires treatment at a hospital or medical centre
Pharmacists are always on hand to help – In nearly every South African town you visit you will find a local pharmacy with a pharmacist who is able to advise and assist you should you find yourself in need of medical advice, repeat prescriptions, and over the counter medications.