If you are going to be traveling for any period of time in Latin America, chances are you will get sick. You'll be surprised - food poisoning horror stories are one of the many things road trippers like to swap tales about. Usually it is just is the minor discomfort associated with mild food poisoning. Find a nice place to relax for a couple of days and let it work its way out of your system the 'natural' way. This article outlines the ways you can minimize your risk of getting sick and what diseases you may encounter along the road.
The CDC has a wealth of information on travel health, vaccinations, and safety. In particular, the CDC Health Information for International Travel (the Yellow Book) was developed to provide up-to-date and comprehensive information on immunization requirements and health recommendations to protect and promote the health of international travelers.
In order to avoid getting sick, you will want to either buy purified water or bring a water purifier. It may be worth purchasing a portable water purification system, as drinking bottled water generates a lot of plastic trash. There are quite a few different options for portable systems, all of which are summarized nicely in this Wikipedia article on water purification. Boiling, filtration, chemicals, and UV light can all be used to kill many infectious agents. You will need clean water for drinking and washing any fruits or vegetables you may eat along the way. Rinsing your toothbrush with purified water is also a good idea. Be wary of non-bottled beverages that are served in restaurants; they may contain water or ice that has not been purified. Check out this water purifier in our gear review section.
Pharmaceuticals and Vaccinations
Depending on what countries you plan to visit, there are different diseases to consider, and vaccinations you will need. The CDC has excellent information on their webpage, and breaks the information down country by country. Of course you should consult with your physician or a local travel doctor before any trip, but the following is a list of things to expect.
Yellow fever is spread by mosquitos (see map). Although there is an effective vaccine, it can still cause devastating outbreaks in unvaccinated communities. Many countries require proof of vaccination before allowing entrance, so make sure to bring your World Health Organization vaccination card to prove that you are indeed vaccinated.
For many of the countries in Central and South America it is a good idea to make sure that you are up-to-date on the following vaccinations:
- Measles, Mumps, and Rubella
- Diphtheria, Pertussis (whooping cough), and Tetanus
- Hepatitis A and B - these requires several shots in series, so be sure to plan ahead
- Typhoid fever - available as an oral vaccine if you're very needle-averse
Malaria is a disease spread by mosquitoes, and is most prevalent in rural areas in a band around the equator. The drugs you can take to prevent malaria in Central and South America will depend on the areas you plan on visiting. In general, in Mexico and Central America, both chloroquine and doxycycline are effective. In some parts of South America, the parasite that causes malaria is now resistant to chloroquine, so it is necessary to take mefloquine (also called Lariam) or Malarone (a combination of atovaquone and proguanil). Currently there is no vaccine for malaria. The UK's National Health Service's map is useful for location specific malaria.
Dengue Fever, also known as 'break-bone fever,' is spread by mosquitoes. It is more prevalent in urban as opposed to rural areas, and there is no vaccine. The only protection currently is to wear mosquito repellent and long clothes whenever possible. Using mosquito repellent with high levels of DEET and treating clothes with permethrine provides the most effective protection from mosquitoes. Outbreaks of Dengue fever are rapidly reported, so check the CDC's Outbreak notices to see if there is an outbreak where you are headed.
Food and Water-Born Parasites
As diverse as the landscape, people, and environments are in Latin America, there is an equal diversity of the food- and water-born parasites you may encounter during your travels. Bacteria, parasites, and viruses can contaminate food and drink in non-hygienic kitchens. For a thorough list of all of the things that can make you sick, see Wikipedia's food-born illnesses and water-born illnesses articles. Most travelers will get sick at some point, but most illnesses do not need to be treated with medicines and will resolve themselves within a couple of days. The Yellow Book has an extensive chapter on diarrhea and additional information on symptoms and treatments. One of the most important things you can do is to make sure to wash your hands thoroughly before eating. Well cooked foods are generally safer than raw or undercooked foods.
It appears that food allergies are not common, and therefore, not well understood in Latin America. It is always worth asking in a restaurant if the food you are ordering contains a certain ingredient (for example, nuts if that is your allergy), but usually the person taking your order will quickly dismiss your question. It is a bit unnerving, so you will need to be careful when you are eating out. In particular for people with nut allergies, South America can be very difficult. Many soups and sauces in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia are made with a peanut base, even some clear broths. From personal experience (and 4 trips to the emergency room in various countries) even asking if something contains nuts does not help. It is worth bringing a good supply of epi-pens and the accompanying medicines (inhalers, benedryl, etc) in case of emergency.