How to travel safely with your family

Whether you're planning a family trip abroad, or just across the border, here's how you need to prepare for a safe and healthy holiday.

Photo: ShaneKato/iStockphoto

When Lisa Murphy and her husband, Rich, set off from their Toronto home to see the world for six months last year, they knew there was a chance they might get sick — and they were kind of OK with that. Of greater concern was whether their two children, nine-year-old Rowan and seven-year-old Margaret, would pick up a bug somewhere overseas.

“As a family, we’d only gone on camping vacations and to all-inclusive resorts where we never had any health issues,” Murphy says. But now the family was headed off to Vietnam, Cambodia, India, China, Brazil and Peru, putting themselves in the path of everything from travellers’ diarrhea to malaria and hepatitis.

“Health is the biggest issue for any family holiday,” says Rohan Bissoondath, medical director of Preventous Collaborative Health in Calgary. But that doesn’t mean you need to stay home, he says. It just pays to be prepared. Whether you’ll be wandering a Turkish bazaar or simply soaking up the sun on a beach in the Caribbean, Bissoondath recommends taking a trip to a travel clinic, or your family doctor, to find out which shots are recommended for your destination. “Ideally, you should book an appointment as soon as you have a confirmed itinerary,” he says. “But, we get everything from ‘We’re thinking of travelling in a year,’ to ‘We’re on our way to the airport.’ It’s never too late to go, although it’s important to know that it takes two weeks for most vaccines to kick in completely.”

Vaccines and medicines

Murphy and her family visited a travel clinic well before their departure date, since some of the shots they needed, such as hepatitis B, had to be spaced out over several months. “We gave the nurse at the clinic a list of our destinations, and she outlined which shots and medications we’d need and when,” Murphy says. “We were also given prescriptions for drugs we could take in case we got sick while we were away.” The whole family received a hepatitis B vaccine, and took a course of Dukoral, an oral vaccine that o ffers some protection against travellers’ diarrhea. They also picked up some altitude sickness medicine, extra antibiotics in case of severe stomach bugs, and malaria pills. Children are especially at risk for malaria, but there are medications that are safe for all ages — they can even be crushed into baby formula or food.

Most vaccines are safe for children, although not always for very young infants. For instance, vaccines for hepatitis A are not given to children younger than a year old. “Some vaccines aren’t recommended under a certain age because they don’t build adequate antibodies, and children may still have maternal antibodies as well, making the vaccines ine ffective,” says Stacy Fowler, a nurse manager at Jema International Travel Clinic in St. John’s.

Meanwhile, children may need an accelerated vaccine schedule if they’re going to miss a shot while they’re away. A good example is the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine, says Fowler, which is recommended for children ages six months and up if they’re travelling (the MMR vaccine normally isn’t administered to Canadians until age one). “ The key is to make sure children are fully protected while they’re away from home,” she says. “ Then they just resume their normal immunization schedule when they return.”

Tummy upsets

No matter where you’re headed, the most common illness families face is tummy upset, says Fowler. “Just eating food your body isn’t used to, as well as being exposed to viruses, parasites or bacteria, can lead to diarrhea,” she says. “And while adults usually get over it fairly quickly, children tend to get sicker and are more likely to become dehydrated.” When Bissoondath travels with his three daughters, he takes every possible precaution against stomach bugs, including wiping down the plane. “I’m meticulous about hand washing and using antibacterial hand spray — I do it all, including cleaning off touch screens and arm rests,” he says. “Yes, it’s good for kids to be exposed to germs and develop immuni ty, but not on the plane at the beginning of a holiday.”

Food safety

Then there’s the issue of finding food that’s safe to eat once you reach your destination. When Fowler travelled to Cuba with her two children, they left the resort to enjoy the local fare. “Part of the experience of travel is seeing the culture and trying the food,” she says. But Fowler follows the rule of only eating foods that have been boiled, peeled or cooked, and makes sure all drinks come sealed in a bottle or can. She also packs extra foods she knows her kids will eat in emergencies, such as instant oatmeal, trail mix and a jar of peanut butter.

Initially, Murphy and her family avoided street food during their travels, but found that in some countries, such as China, the o fferings from street vendors were fresher and tastier than what they’d find in a restaurant. “Each country presented di fferent food challenges,” Murphy says. “In Peru, there wasn’t a ton of variety, and many things were fried, so shopping in markets for fruit and vegetables we could peel came in handy. In China, Vietnam and Cambodia, meals were inexpensive and there were lots of healthy vegetable dishes that the kids liked. Overall, we found that choosing busier, visibly cleaner restaurants increased the likelihood that the food was fresh.” For backup, Murphy also gave her kids multivitamins. “I actually wish we had brought more vitamins with us because it was hard to find them abroad — most of the ones we found were liquids, which the kids didn’t like.”

Find a doctor

Despite all of Murphy’s precautions, no one made it through the entire trip without getting sick. Fortunately, nothing was too serious. Margaret had a little altitude sickness a fter an overnight bus ride to Cuzco, Peru, and both Margaret and Rich got a few ear infections, which they’re prone to at the best of times. “In India, the kids got fevers, and Rich and I had a nasty tummy bug that took several weeks to sort out,” Murphy says. “We took the antibiotics that we had brought with us, but when they didn’t help, we went to a local doctor that our hotel recommended. Doctors and private clinics are readily available in most major cities, and we found the service fast and efficient — and getting prescriptions filled was a breeze.”

Bissoondath recommends researching internationally recognized hospitals at your travel destination, and how to contact them, ahead of time, in case of emergencies. He also says investing in travel insurance that covers your flight home is a must.

“It’s such a great thing to travel as a family,” says Bissoondath. “As long as you’re prepared, you’ll have a rewarding and memorable holiday.”

A version of this article appeared in our April 2013 issue with the headline “Have family, will travel” (pp. 36-40).

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