Why you should always visit a travel health clinic before heading abroad

Mar 10, 2020

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Travelers across the country are stocking up on sanitary wipes and face masks amid concerns surrounding the new coronavirus from China. But there’s an often untapped resource that can help you stay healthy while on the road, especially if your journey takes you to an international destination.

Many university hospitals and other healthcare providers operate what are commonly known as travel clinics. These niche facilities are equipped with specialists who can advise you on everything from vaccinations to risks facing travelers in specific countries.

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“You’re going to have a much more detailed level of knowledge that can be tailored to your itinerary and your underlying health issues,” said Dr. David Hamer, a professor of infectious diseases at Boston University School of Medicine. As a result, he said, “you’re more likely to have fewer complications during your trip, potentially.”

Hamer said the information provided at a travel clinic is often more in-depth compared to what you’d receive from a traditional internal medicine visit or data gathered from an online source.

Most of these clinics are open to the public, including Boston University’s clinic, which is open to anyone. Special arrangements can be made for large groups such as volunteers and missionaries.

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Boston University. (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)
Boston University. (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

While there’s a strong focus on immunizations to combat potentially infectious diseases, patients at travel clinics are given advice to help them during every step of their journey, including how best to prevent diarrhea, mosquito bites and blood clots on long distance flights, said Dr. Andrés Henao, travel clinic director at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

Patients are typically asked to provide any immunization records, as well as an itinerary of their trip, including the length. They may be asked about where they’ll stay and sleep, as well as any planned activities, to help providers make an assessment of particular risks, Dr. Henao said.

“Then, we decide what immunizations might be given depending on the trip and its characteristics, such as immunizations for food-borne illnesses such as typhoid or Hepatitis A; or vector-borne or mosquito-borne illnesses, such as dengue fever, chikungunya or yellow fever and counseling in regards to repellants or how you cover your skin with outdoor activities,” said Dr. Henao.

Such visits should be scheduled well before the start of your trip.

“It’s good to allow more than two weeks before visiting the travel medicine specialist — vaccines take 10 to 14 days to take effect or require two doses a week or more apart,” said Dr. Hamer.

In addition to medical information, patients are often given specific advice when it comes to food and water consumption. Patients are also briefed on other risks such as traffic safety and accident prevention.

While the focus is on preventive care, providers may know of physicians abroad, in case you need medical assistance abroad. Doctors also recommend checking with the U.S. embassy at your international destination for a list of medical options. Clinicians can also provide information for pre-travel health insurance. Some providers may offer screening of COVID-19 and other viral infections, however tests are in short supply.

(Photo by Ben Birchall/PA Images/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ben Birchall/PA Images/Getty Images)

In some cases, follow-up visits are scheduled for when a patient returns from their trip.

While many clinic visits are covered by insurance, coverage can vary by state and provider. The cost can fluctuate depending on the extent of treatment and vaccines administered, but the total could add up to several hundred dollars, if not more.

In addition to the clinics in Boston and Denver, travelers will find clinics in most metropolitan areas, including Weill Cornell in New York City; the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (near Detroit); Nashville’s Vanderbilt Health travel clinic; UCLA Health in Los Angeles; and the University of Miami Health clinic.

To find a travel clinic in your area, contact your primary care physician for a recommendation; the infectious disease department at your local hospital; or your area university. You might also have some luck with a simple Google search.

Check ahead to determine if you’re eligible for treatment.

Featured photo by Luis Alvarez/Getty Images.

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