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Emerging Infectious Diseases 

What are emerging infectious diseases?

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases defines emerging infectious diseases as:

  • Outbreaks of previously unknown diseases 

  • Known diseases that are rapidly increasing in incidence or geographic range in the last 2 decades

  • Persistence of infectious diseases that cannot be controlled

Emerging diseases include:

  • HIV infections

  • SARS

  • Lyme disease

  • Escherichia coli O157:H7 (E. coli)

  • Hantavirus

  • Dengue fever

  • West Nile virus

  • Zika virus

Reemerging diseases are those that reappear after they have been on a major decline. Reemergence may happen because of a breakdown in public health measures for diseases that were once under control. They can also happen when new strains of known disease-causing organisms appear. Human behavior affects reemergence. For example, overuse of antibiotics has led to disease-causing organisms that are resistant to medicines. It has allowed a return of diseases that once were treatable and controllable.

Reemerging diseases include:

  • Malaria

  • Tuberculosis

  • Cholera

  • Pertussis

  • Influenza

  • Pneumococcal disease

  • Gonorrhea

Travelers should know that some diseases thought to be under control in the U.S. may be having an outbreak in other countries. Ask for information and take precautions before being exposed to one of these diseases.

Who is at risk for emerging infectious diseases?

Traveling abroad can put you at risk for infectious diseases that are not widespread in the U.S. Travelers who become ill in a country where treatment for these diseases may be somewhat limited are even more at risk. All people planning travel should become informed about the potential hazards of the countries they are traveling to. Learn how to reduce your risk of getting these diseases.

Why are travel-related infectious diseases on the rise?

It is believed that increased global travel is the reason for the recent renewal of many infectious diseases in the U.S. The number of people traveling internationally is increasing every year. More people are also taking trips to remote parts of the world. These often have unfamiliar health problems as well as underdeveloped healthcare services. Many travelers are also unaware of potential hazards in different parts of the world and do not take the necessary precautions. These include getting needed vaccines or taking preventive medicine.

Many of the newly discovered infections have actually been in existence for a long time. But healthcare providers have not seen them in areas where new outbreaks happen. With people's ability today to travel anywhere in the world within 36 hours or less, formerly little-known infections are picked up and rapidly spread to areas where they previously did not exist.

How can travelers reduce their risk from infectious diseases?

Travel abroad does not need to result in an illness from infectious diseases. Taking these measures can help reduce your risk when traveling internationally:

  • Seek information as far before traveling as possible, even if the destination is one you have previously visited. Health conditions can change quickly in certain areas of the world. Get as much information as possible about current health risks for the country or countries you are visiting. Learn about special risks for children, pregnant women, people with chronic diseases, and people with weakened immune systems who might be traveling with you.

  • For specific recommendations, see a travel medicine specialist or a healthcare provider familiar with the area you will be visiting at least 4 to 6 weeks before your trip. If you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant, make certain to ask a travel medicine specialist about any pregnancy-specific concerns in your travel area.  

  • Make sure your routine vaccines, including the seasonal flu vaccine, are up-to-date.  

  • Get the immunizations and take the preventive medicines recommended by your healthcare provider. Since some of these must be given or taken weeks before travel, contact your healthcare provider as early as possible to make sure of the effectiveness of these measures.

  • If medicine is needed for prevention of malaria, be sure to take it as prescribed. Follow dosage instructions carefully. Malaria preventive medicines must be started before your trip to make sure there are protective levels in your body before any exposure to mosquitoes at your destination. Check with your healthcare provider or pharmacist to be sure you begin them early enough. They must be continued throughout your trip and for a specific number of days after you return. The amount of time depends on which medicine you are prescribed.

  • Put together a traveler's first aid kit with specific items geared to your destinations. Add enough extra medicines and supplies to last a few days past the duration of your trip. Your healthcare provider can help you identify what should be included in your kit.

  • Research emergency medical care during your trip and what medical evacuation services are available in case of serious illness. Contact your health insurance plan to find out what is covered in other countries. Take 2 copies of your medical insurance information with you and keep them in separate areas. If you are traveling as part of an organized tour, contact the agency about medical services available and any additional insurance that might be available.

  • If you have any infectious disease symptoms when you return home, contact your healthcare provider and describe where you have traveled. Symptoms can include fever, rash, joint pain, diarrhea, belly pain, and red eyes. But each person is unique and your symptoms may be different. If you become ill when you return home, it is best to check with your healthcare provider. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Barry Zingman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Wanda Taylor RN PhD
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2019
© 2000-2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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