My name is Jacqueline and I’m a Research Assistant Intern at IAMAT in Toronto. I’m currently completing a post-graduate certificate at Centennial College in International Development, and hope to go on to work in the area of healthcare development around the world.
My interest in healthcare was piqued during a recent 3 month trip through Southeast Asia, where I was exposed first-hand to some of the challenges that come with seeking health services abroad.
About two weeks into my trip, I crashed the rental motorbike I had been riding into a rusted barbed wire fence. I was lucky to not have broken any bones or have sustained any serious injuries, but I did cut myself deeply on my legs and arms. Thousands of miles from home, in a rural region of Phu Quoc Island off the southern coast of Vietnam, I had no idea where to find a doctor. Equipped with a small first-aid kit, I patched myself up and went on my way.
Later, while travelling in a rural region of Cambodia, I met a local bar owner and got a little too close to his cat before it bit me on the lip. It was first-aid-kit-to-the-rescue once again, but later that evening I began to think that I should get the Rabies vaccine – as I had just been bitten by an animal I had never met before and knew nothing about. I started to do some research and found that it wouldn’t be possible to get the necessary Rabies vaccines in the rural town I was in. I ended up having to wait nearly a week before I was in a large city and could visit a hospital.
At the hospital, I explained to the doctor what had happened and he gave me a vaccine, and an immunization schedule for two more vaccines, which I later got. It wasn’t until I arrived home in Canada that I learned that I was not given the right set of vaccines for post-animal bite Rabies prevention.
I can laugh about these experiences now, but they taught me some valuable travel tips I’ll never leave home without.
Find out if and where there is a hospital, reputable pharmacy, and an English-speaking doctor in every place you visit, before you need it.
When you’re travelling and having fun, the last thing on your mind is mapping out a doctor’s clinic or hospital if you find yourself in a situation where you need one. You should make it a priority.
After my motorcycle accident, I had to limp around Phu Quoc to try and find a cell signal so that I could look up the closest hospital. Trust me – it’s much easier to search for a doctor and a hospital before you need them rather than after.
Find the contact details of a doctor that speaks your language before you go – the IAMAT Medical Directory contains contact details for English-speaking doctors in over 80 countries. You should also write down your destination’s emergency phone numbers, the contact details of your embassy, and look into hospitals near you.
Always travel with a well-packed first aid kit.
I have to credit a friend of mine for this one, as I was days away from leaving for my trip when I was gifted a little waterproof yellow bag filled with first-aid supplies. I didn’t think I’d ever use it, but packed it in my backpack anyway.
Two weeks into my trip, I was seriously grateful to have that first aid kit. In many rural areas of Southeast Asia, band-aids are sold individually and a week’s worth of bandages can really add up!
A good emergency first aid kit should include:
- Sterilizing wipes
- Medical tape
- Antibiotic Ointment
You should also consider packing some non-emergency items such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, allergy medication, blister pads, and oral rehydration salts. For more tips on how to pack your first aid kit, check out our first aid kit packing guide and tip sheet.
Get vaccinated before you depart.
Before I left for my trip, I went to a travel clinic to get vaccinated. After a consultation with my doctor, he suggested a list of vaccinations for my trip, including Typhoid Fever, Japanese Encephalitis, Polio, and Hepatitis A. After getting these vaccines, I then had to decide whether to get a few more vaccines that were not as highly recommended. Ultimately, I decided that it would be okay to skip them. One of the series of vaccines that I opted not to get was for Rabies prevention.
While my travel plans didn’t specifically include any interactions with animals, I am an animal lover and a nature lover. I should have been more realistic about the likelihood that I would be interacting with animals. I also should have considered that I would be in rural areas of Southeast Asia without consistent access to medical care and the necessary post-exposure Rabies treatment.
Travel is unpredictable – and that’s the fun of it! If you’re going to be travelling to new places and trying new things, you can’t be too sure of what you will or will not encounter. Save yourself the hassle later and get the required and recommended vaccines from a doctor you trust back home – otherwise you might find yourself scrambling to find emergency care abroad.
Be aware of fake drugs.
Following my motorcycle accident in Vietnam, on the advice of a kind Airbnb host, I decided to visit a pharmacy and get some antibiotics – just in case any of my self-treated wounds developed an infection. The pharmacist I visited recommended that I take three pills a day for six days as a preventative measure. I continued to visit local pharmacies and purchase antibiotics for any other accidents that occurred over my months abroad. However, what I didn’t know then, but I do know now, is the prevalence of fake drugs – especially in Southeast Asia.
Fake or counterfeit drugs are substances that include too much, too little, or no active ingredient, or contain toxic ingredients. These substances are intended to deliberately mislead patients and health professionals, as they often look exactly like the real thing. Substandard medications are also a concern – they are produced by legitimate manufacturers but do not meet quality standards (for example, they may be contaminated or expired). Fake and substandard medications can lead to further illness, disability, or even death.
I was lucky not to get ill from any drugs I bought, or maybe I was lucky and only got the real stuff. In any case, I really wish I had known about how widespread fake medication is abroad. If I had been more aware, I could have been more diligent when buying and consuming these products on my trip.
To reduce the risk of encountering fake medications, make sure you get vaccinated and buy all the medication you need before you depart. If you find yourself in a situation where you do need to buy medication abroad, opt for pharmacies in large urban areas and check the dosage and expiration date of the medication. Do not purchase medication online, from an unlicensed pharmacy, or from a street vendor or market. If you’re unsure about the safety of pharmacies where you are, the doctors listed in the IAMAT Medical Directory can help you find a reputable pharmacy.
My trip through Asia was one of the best experiences of my life. Travelling far from home in new places and experiencing new cultures is something that I hope everyone has the opportunity to do. There will always be challenges while travelling, as you can never be 100% prepared for the unknown. However, by doing your research and making sure you are prepared for everything you can predict, you can travel more freely and turn those unexpected occurrences into minor hiccups – which will make your trip all the more enjoyable!
Article and pictures by: Jacqueline Tucci