How to prevent typhoid fever while eating out on your trip

Eating at a restaurant in Ubud, Bali

The name itself is a little confusing.  Typhoid fever sounds too much like typhus fever, a completely different disease.  Typhoid fever is caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi, whereas typhus fever is caused by bacteria in the Rickettsia family. You can get typhoid fever from eating or drinking contaminated food or water.  You can get typhus fever by being bitten by an infected human body louse or tick.  Which disease wins in the popularity contest of diseases in U.S. travelers?  Typhoid fever wins by an overwhelming majority.

The CDC estimates that there are about 21 million cases of typhoid fever and 200,000 related deaths each year.  Each year, there are about 5,700 cases of typhoid fever in U.S travelers, most who got the disease while traveling in a developing country.  Which countries have the most cases of typhoid fever?  SOUTH ASIAN COUNTRIES, including INDIA AND PAKISTAN,  have a 6-30X higher risk than other countries.  However, other areas with a high risk of typhoid fever include Southeast Asia, East Asia, Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Essentially most places you would visit outside of North America, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand have a risk of typhoid fever.

So how bad is getting typhoid fever?  Typhoid fever usually causes high fevers, headache, malaise, decreased appetite, enlarged liver or spleen, or a rash consisting of pink “rose spots.”  Diarrhea is uncommon. The serious complications of typhoid fever include intestinal hemorrhage or perforation, which can lead to death.  In the pre-antibiotic era, the fatality rate was up to 20-30%.  Now, antibiotics are the treatment of choice for typhoid fever.  But even with the right antibiotic, it can still take 3-5 days for people with typhoid fever to start feeling better.  Children who get typhoid fever may need to be treated as an inpatient in the hospital.  The incubation period for typhoid fever is 6-30 days.  So even if you’re back home from your travels, remember to tell your doctor about your travel history if you get a high fever.

Families often ask me during a pre-travel visit, “How do I prevent typhoid fever?  First of all, practicing SAFE FOOD AND WATER PRECAUTIONS is very important.  See my previous post “Is this safe to eat?”  for more details on these very essential tips. The same precautions used to prevent traveler’s diarrhea will also prevent typhoid fever.  However, we also know that people who are known as “asymptomatic carriers” can pass typhoid fever on to another person.   For example, if a restaurant waitress, who has recently recovered from typhoid fever, does not wash her hands with soap and water after using the restroom, she can contaminate the food or drinks she serves to a customer.  From my experience, it is RARE to find soap in restaurant bathrooms in Asia.  Have you ever heard of the case of Typhoid Mary?  In 1900, Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary, was a cook in NYC and the first person in the U.S. to be identified as an asymptomatic carrier.  She unknowingly infected 51 people, 3 of whom died.  She spent nearly 30 years in isolation before she died.

GETTING THE TYPHOID FEVER VACCINE before your trip will also prevent typhoid fever.  There are 2 safe typhoid fever vaccines available that offer 50-80% protection from the disease.  The injectable Typhim Vi vaccine  can be given to people age 2 and older.  The oral live attenuated typhoid vaccine, Vivotif, can be given to people age 6 and older, who can swallow pills (4 relatively large pills over the course of 7 days).  The oral vaccine needs to be refrigerated and completed at least 1 week before your trip.  The injectable vaccine is best given 2 weeks before your trip to give time for the immunization to work.   But even if your trip is in a few days, it is still better to get the vaccine late than not getting it at all. For the repeat travelers, the injectable Typhim vaccine will need to be given again in 2 years and the oral Vivotif vaccine will need to be given again in 5 years.  Side effects of typhoid vaccines are uncommon and mild.  For the typhoid shot, fever, headache, and local skin reactions are the usual side effects.  For the oral typhoid vaccine, fever, headache, and the rare stomach upset can occur.

Typhoid fever vaccine is the #1 vaccine I recommend most for travelers to developing countries.  Primarily because this disease is still so common in developing countries, where sanitation is poor and contaminated water is common.  I love to eat at local restaurants when I travel, but I cannot guarantee the safety of their food or the level of hygiene their staff practices.  And knowing how ill people with typhoid fever can get was the primary reason why I vaccinated myself and my daughter from this disease before our trip to East and Southeast Asia.

Will she remember this when she grows up?

Chasing Daddy around temple in Shanghai

This was a question that many friends and coworkers asked me when I told them what I was planning for my 3 month sabbatical last year. We were about to embark on a multi-country, “around the world”  trip with a toddler in tow.  I knew it wasn’t going to be easy with a 3 year old but I was willing to risk it for the sake of having these once in a lifetime experiences.  But was she going to remember the places we would visit or the people we would meet?

Traveling with young children requires you to slow down and prepare for the unexpected.  Children love routines and traveling takes them out of their comfort zone.  A different bed, place, and time zone throws off their sleep routines. It takes longer for children to adjust to a different time zone.  I tell families to expect it to take up to a week for their child to start sleeping well again.  Unfamiliar foods can also be difficult for young children to eat.  Overtired and hungry is a formula for toddler meltdowns.  We sure had our fair share of these tantrums towards the beginning of our travels.

What always surprises me about kids though is their RESILIENCE.  Children deserve more credit than what they are given.  When one of our flights in the Phillippines was delayed for 3 hours, we had to sit in a 90 degree room with no air-conditioning in a tiny airport.  My 3 year old daughter just had fun visiting the tiny gift shop 20 times and looking at the pictures and videos we had taken on our ipad.  Then, when we were told that our flight was cancelled because of “lack of sunlight” and that we would have to spend the night in a nearby hotel, she again was happy just with the thought of going swimming again.  As long as children are fed and rested, they can handle more than you could imagine.

What I realized through my travels is that my daughter relished just BEING with us and having our FULL attention.  When we are home, we are constantly distracted by work and house chores.  Technology also takes our attention away from the people we love most.  When we are away from home, we play games, explore new playgrounds, hold hands, and just simply talk to each other more.   I also saw my husband develop a stronger connection with my daughter that has continued to last, even 6 months after our return.  She no longer demands that I be the one to put her to bed every night or that I be the one to help give her a bath.

Taking a child on an international trip has its pros and cons.  We were not able to stay out past 9 pm or do any adventurous activities.  However, my daughter did get a chance to pet an Australian koala, float (while we snorkeled) in the water on the Great Barrier Reef, ride on a donkey up a volcano in the Phillippines, sit on a bamboo raft going down the Li River in Guilin, and see clownfishes swimming in sea anemones.  She was also able to give food to homeless Filipino street children, see a tarsier, the world’s smallest monkey, and taste the sweetest mangoes and lychees we’ve ever had.  She missed 3 months of school and we spent a lot of our savings.  But she was able to learn and experience things she could never learn in a classroom or at home.  And our connection as a family has deepened as a result. This is what I find most valuable about traveling with children .

Mosquitoes, a love hate relationship

They love me.  I hate them.  I seem to attract mosquitoes every time I go on a vacation to a warm place.  When I get a mosquito bite, my skin swells up like a giant tennis ball and itches like crazy for a week.  My husband never seems to get bitten. And if he does, the mosquito bites disappear after a few hours.  I don’t know why I am so unlucky.  Unfortunately, my 3 year old daughter appears to have inherited my genes in this respect.  The mosquitoes also love her.

Mosquito bites are incredibly annoying.  In many developing countries in Asia, Middle East, South America, and Africa, mosquitoes also carry deadly diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya, yellow fever, and Japanese encephalitis.  We are lucky not to have to worry about these diseases in the U.S.  However, I fear that travelers often forget about how common and dangerous these diseases are in other countries and don’t take the necessary precautions.

In my practice, I have many families who travel to India to visit friends or relatives and stay for many weeks at a time.  Malaria is endemic in ALL of India, rural and urban areas.  The disease is more common during the wet monsoon season, which is roughly June through September.  This coincides perfectly with our summer break, when most families take the time to take long international trips.  Parents will often tell me how they knew of someone who got malaria in India.

Getting malaria can be very scary.  Malaria usually presents as high fevers, chills, and flu-like symptoms, such as body aches and fatigue.  Malaria can also cause severe anemia, jaundice (yellowing of the skin), seizures, kidney failure, coma, mental confusion, acute respiratory distress syndrome, and death.  Children under age 5 are particularly vulnerable to these severe complications of malaria.  There are 4 different types of malaria, with Plasmodium Falciparum being the  worst type.  Infection with this species is known to cause rapid and severe illness.  In fact, infection with this type of malaria is considered a medical emergency!  Over the last 2 decades, the rates of Plasmodium falciparum infection is increasing in India with an estimated incidence of >40% of all malaria infections in that country.

The good news is that malaria is PREVENTABLE.  There is no anti-malaria vaccine yet but there are exciting new treatments in the horizon.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are developing some exciting new anti-malaria drugs. For now, the best way to prevent malaria is to take medications to prevent malaria called chemoprophylaxis and use insect repellants, such as DEET.  Most of these malaria prophylactic medications are safe, well-tolerated, and effective for people of all ages.  In addition, I recommend travelers use repellants with 20-30% DEET, even on infants as young as 2 months.  Use mosquito nets when your accommodation does not have window screens or air conditioning. Permethrin can also be applied to clothing and bed nets.  The type of mosquito that carries the malaria parasite tends to bite during the twilight hours, between dusk and dawn. Be careful when you’re visiting those night markets or having dinner at sunset.

How do you know if there is a risk for malaria at your trip destination?  Check the   CDC website.  If there is a risk, visit your doctor or a travel medicine specialist at least 2 weeks before your trip since some medications need to be started a couple weeks before you leave.  Since nausea or vomiting is the most common side effect with these prophylactic medications, take it with food and water.  You can also call your doctor and switch your medication if you get an unwanted side effect before you leave on your trip. Many parents are reluctant to give medications to their children.  I get it.  I usually don’t like giving unnecessary medications to children either.  But when I weigh the risk of my child getting a deadly disease, like malaria, with the possible side effects  of the medication, I would choose to give the prophylactic medication every time.

Malaria symptoms can develop as early as 7 days after initial exposure and as late as several months after departure.  If you have visited a malaria endemic area and come down with high fevers, don’t forget to mention your recent travel to your doctor.  Prompt diagnosis and treatment of malaria is life-saving.

Now what about the other bad diseases that mosquitoes can transmit? Like dengue fever or Japanese encephalitis?  Tune in for future posts on these mean and smart bugs!

Is the orphanage you are supporting a fake one?

Something I’ve learned about recently has made me very upset and concerned. Many well-intentioned people travel to developing countries to volunteer their time and donate their money to orphanages.   I completely understand this desire to help those less fortunate, especially children.  I am a pediatrician and seeing pictures of poor orphans make me sad. I have joined short-term medical missions to Mexico and Nepal in the past and have found these experiences to be profoundly rewarding.  But I am now discovering that these experiences have rewarded me much more than they have rewarded those I was serving.

Traveling to far-away places to help another community has become increasingly popular and a very lucrative business. However, I have learned that this business has also become another way to dupe tourists.  Fake orphanages have been fueled by the rise in voluntourism.  In Cambodia, a country that suffered tremendously 30 years ago by the Khmer Rouge, UNICEF discovered that the number of orphanages increased by 75% from 2005-2010.  What was shocking was that 77% of these orphans were not actually true orphans! Most of them had a living parent.  Many of these children are from poor families who give up their children in return for money or promise for a better future for their children.  Many poor Cambodian parents falsely believe that if they send their children to orphanages, they will have a better education, better access to medical care, and better nutrition.  These children are often asked to dance and sing for tourists.  They are asked to show a sad face and wear dirty clothes to seek more donations from tourists.  In Cambodia, this has become a multi-million dollar business. Most of the money are not going to the children, but to the orphanage directors.  And more and more children are being abandoned by their families and exploited as a result.  Some children are even being sold to adoptive parents from rich countries.  Cambodia is not the only country where this is happening.  Nepal has seen a surge in fake orphanages, especially in the aftermath of the recent earthquake. Indonesian orphanages are deliberately kept in poor condition to get more money from tourists.

Children, who are true orphans, are much better off in a foster care system and not in a residential care facility.  We all know this is true.  Why then do we continue to give money or volunteer at orphanages in other countries?  Many people who volunteer also have no experience and no background check.  This makes more children more vulnerable to sexual exploitation as well.  Is it VOLUNtourism or volunTOURISM?  There are some legitimate orphanages out there but it is difficult for the tourist to figure that out.  Asking a local NGO would be a first step.  Organizations that require a background criminal check and have strong supporting staff is also a plus.  Tourists love spending time with children.  But then leaving after a few days will continue the cycle of abandonment for orphans. I favor organizations that require a minimum time commitments of several weeks in order to truly make a positive impact on orphans.  I would also look for organizations that actively promote family reunification. Help poor families take care of their children, not take the children away from them.

Is this safe to eat?

Street food in Chinafrogs in singapore

One of my favorite things about traveling internationally is eating good food.  Our friends know that we love to eat street food.  The street food in Asia is delicious, cheap, and convenient.  In China, the street vendors sell juicy pork buns and meat skewers.  In Bali, bicyclists sell noodle soup with fish balls.  In Thailand, they sell fruit skewers with spiced pineapple and fresh mango pieces.  Most of our memories and pictures of our international trips are of the delicious food we eat there.   Much to my husband’s dismay, this all changed after our daughter was born and started coming with us on our trips.

When we brought our three year old to Asia, one of my main concerns was how to keep her from getting sick.  Like most mothers, I was more concerned about my child’s health than my own.  Most people who were born or grew up in a developing country know about the risks of eating street food but do it anyway.    I was raised in the U.S. while my husband grew up in the Philippines.   He has fond memories of the food he ate as a child. Bangus, fish balls, halo halo, to name a few.  Every time we passed a food stall in Asia, he would stop and buy a small bite to eat, even if the food looked a little sketchy and unhygienic.  And I would often give in and taste it as well.  I can never resist trying a new ethnic food.   Perhaps this is why I got “Bali Belly” mid-way through our trip.   Perhaps this is why the incidence of traveler’s diarrhea is very high in developing countries, roughly  30-70%, depending on where and when you go.  Along with respiratory illnesses, traveler’s diarrhea is by far one of the most common illnesses tourists get while abroad.

Bali belly.  Montezuma’s revenge.  Delhi belly.  Turkey trots.  Whatever you call it, traveler’s diarrhea is no fun when you are on vacation in a foreign land, where the bathrooms are places you try as much as you can to avoid.  Traveler’s diarrhea (TD) can be mild in some people or can be quite severe in others.  TD can often cause fever, bloody stools, vomiting, abdominal pain, and dehydration.  Young children are more likely to get dehydrated due to TD.  Young children are also more likely to get hospitalized due to traveler’s diarrhea.  Getting traveler’s diarrhea can more than ruin your trip.

The good news is that traveler’s diarrhea is preventable and treatable.  Most people have heard the popular saying, “boil, peel it, or forget it.”  This rule is a good one to follow with regards to food safety but there is more to know for travelers.  The CDC also has a helpful free app for travelers called “Can I Eat This?”

1.  Choose foods that are freshly cooked and piping hot.  Those meat skewers I saw in China may have been sitting around all day. Avoid raw meats or seafood.  Avoid raw vegetables.

2. Choose fruits that you can peel yourself or wash in clean, disinfected water.   The fruit skewers in Thailand are peeled but could still be contaminated by unclean water.  The fresh tomatoes in salsa in Mexico are probably not washed in clean water or peeled.

3. Avoid food from street vendors since their level of hygiene is generally poor.

4.  Drink only disinfected or bottled water.  Boiling water for 1 minute will  make it safe to drink.  Some water  bottles in Asia may have teen tampered with so always check the cap to make sure it is sealed.  When I was in China, I bought a carton of milk from a grocery store.  When I got back to our hotel, I discovered that it had already been opened.  Filtered water is also not clean water. Also, use disinfected water for brushing teeth.

5.  Avoid ice in drinks at restaurants as it may have been made with unclean water.

6.  Avoid unpasteurized dairy products and juices.  Be wary of ice cream prepared in contaminated containers.

7. Always wash your hands with soap and water before you eat and after you go to the restroom.  One thing I had a hard time finding in public restrooms in Asia was soap.  Hand sanitizer helps but does not kill Norovirus.  You may want to carry around a little bottle of soap when you are traveling.

Now, even if you follow all of these food and drink safety rules, there are no guarantees.  You can still get traveler’s diarrhea.  You cannot control the hygiene of the restaurants you eat at. For people going to developing countries with young children, I advise them to bring ORS (oral rehydration solution) salts.  If your child gets diarrhea, start ORS salts right away as this could prevent dehydration.  In the U.S., we use pedialyte electrolyte solution.  However, in other countries, the equivalent is ORS salts, commonly sold in pharmacies.  You can buy it online to have in your travel health kit before you go on your trip.  Sports drinks or soda have too much sugar and not the right amount of electrolytes that young children need.  If your child is vomiting, you can give a teaspoon every 5 minutes.   Once your child can keep down liquids, you can give him/her food.  But avoid food that is sugary or fatty while your child is still recovering as those foods can sometimes make the diarrhea worse.

In developing countries, 80-90% of traveler’s diarrhea is due to a bacteria.  The most common culprit is enterotoxigenic E.coli, followed by campylobacter, shigella, and salmonella species.  Conversely, diarrhea in the U.S. is predominantly due to a virus.  Traveler’s diarrhea can be severe and cause dehydration, especially in children.  This is why I recommend bringing a prescription antibiotic, like Azithromycin, with you if you are going to a developing country.  This antibiotic should be used for severe diarrhea, not just mild or moderate diarrhea.  Taking it early can help you feel better faster and prevent complications.  Imodium and pepto-bismol is not recommended for kids under 12 due to possible serious side effects.  When I developed bloody diarrhea in Bali, I was so glad that I had brought Azithromycin.   I still spent 3 days lying in bed in my hotel room, but it could have been much worse. At least my daughter did not get it.

But what about antibiotic resistance?  It’s been shown recently in a study that travelers who have taken antibiotics have a higher risk of being colonized with ESBL (extended spectrum beta-lactamase) producing bacteria.  And we already know that most TD causing bacteria in South and Southeast Asia are now resistant to Cipro.   The trends of antibiotic resistance are scary.  This is why people should reserve using antibiotics only for severe diarrhea.  What about probiotics? Will they help?  As of now, there is not enough data to show that probiotics help treat traveler’s diarrhea. Many people with TD who seek medical care overseas are also very likely to get intravenous antibiotics, not just oral antibiotics.  Then, there is also new evidence that treating traveler’s diarrhea with antibiotics will lessen the risk of developing a potential chronic problem, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).  The debate is ongoing.

Remember that antibiotics do not kill viruses or parasites, which are also common pathogens in developing countries.  If your child’s diarrhea does not improve within 3 days, or if he/she develops high fevers, dehydration, or severe bloody stools, you will need to seek medical care.  Getting a stool sample tested may be recommended.

Don’t feed the cute monkeys or puppies!

Macaques at the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud, Bali

adorable puppies in Chengdu, China

When we went to Ubud, Bali, one of the main attractions was seeing the monkeys at the Sacred Monkey Forest.  My three year old daughter was thrilled to see them walk around us and eat the food that people brought for them.  I remember that our biggest concern was to make sure the monkeys didn’t swipe our hats, drinks, and sunglasses.  There were signs everywhere warning people to keep your valuables safe from the monkeys.  In fact, I witnessed a monkey take off with an elderly tourist’s eyeglasses and promptly broke them in several pieces.  I felt really sorry for this woman since I knew it would be impossible for her to find a replacement for the rest of her trip.  We felt lucky to take some good photos of the monkeys, feed them some bananas, and leave with all of our belongings.  In retrospect, we were also very lucky not to get scratched or bitten by any monkeys.  I learned recently that about 40% of workers at this temple have reported getting bitten by these monkeys.

One of the many informative seminars I attended at a recent travel medicine conference was on the deadly diseases that wild animals can spread to humans.  I learned that monkeys, dogs, bats, and other wild animals in developing countries can harbor terrible viruses, like rabies, which is extremely fatal without treatment.  Bites from macaques can transmit another deadly virus, called herpesvirus B, which is just as terrible.  About 50,000-55,000 people die from rabies worldwide each year.  And about half of these deaths are in India alone.  Mostly all were bitten by a rabid dog.  In the United States, rabies is only a concern with bites from animals such as bats, skunks, foxes, coyotes, and raccoons.  Dog and cat bites in the U.S.  almost never carry rabies.  I consider this yet another huge success story of vaccinations, this time in pets.

Children under age 5 are particularly high risk for animal bites since they are smaller and usually love animals.  Bites to the face and neck, which are higher risk bites, are more common in children.  Children may also not tell the parent that a dog scratched or bit them.  About 40% of all human rabies occur in kids younger than 14 years of age.  Animal bites are the 7th most common health problem in travelers, with children 3-4x higher risk.  There is an approximately 1.3% chance of a dog bite in travelers who stay in an endemic country for a month or more.

The full treatment of animal bites to prevent rabies can be difficult to obtain in some developing countries.   It is important to wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water and apply a povidone-iodine solution directly to the wound.   But more importantly, the post-exposure treatment involves getting human rabies immunoglobulin (HRIG)and starting a series of 4 rabies vaccine shots as soon as possible, preferably within 72 hours, after an animal bite or scratch.  Since most rural areas do not carry HRIG, an animal bite or scratch would mean that you would have to scrap your entire trip, go to the nearest hospital or clinic that actually has this life-saving treatment, or go home ASAP!  This is an important reason why I recommend all families traveling to developing countries AVOID touching or feeding wild or stray animals, no matter how cute or harmless they look.  This is why I will never let my child go near a wild animal again the next time we travel to a developing country.

In the U.S. there is a vaccine against rabies that people can get before the trip to help prevent rabies in case they get an animal bite.  The CDC recommends the rabies vaccine for people who will be outdoors a lot like campers or cavers, those who have occupations like veterinarians, long-term travelers (>1 month), and young children get this vaccine series.  However, the rabies vaccine series involve  3 separate doses over the course of 21-28 days.  The timing of this vaccine series is difficult since most patients are not seeking pre-travel advice until the week or two before their trip.  Also, each of these 3 vaccines  is extremely expensive, about $200-300 each!  In addition, getting this pre-exposure rabies vaccine series does not mean that you don’t need treatment after an animal bite.  You won’t need the difficult to find HRIG shot, but you would still need an additional 4th dose of rabies vaccine.  Most developing countries have a good supply of rabies vaccine, even rural areas.  So getting the 3 rabies vaccines before your trip would not completely ruin your trip, which you probably have waited all year for.

When I discuss the rabies issue with families, it is a difficult decision for families to make.  Rabies is a scary and deadly disease.  Luckily, travelers rarely come down with rabies (1 study reported 22 cases over 10 years).  Perhaps this is because travelers tend to seek medical advice after an animal bite.  My recommendation is that if you choose not to get the rabies vaccine series before your trip and you are traveling to a highly endemic area, like Asia or Africa, with a small child, be sure to BUY travel health insurance and medical evacuation insurance.  This could save you a tremendous amount of money, time, and worry!

Keeping your child happy on the long flight

child on flight

One of things that I think about often when I take a trip with my child is how to keep her happy and entertained on a long flight.  We have all read recent headlines about flights getting diverted due to disruptive passengers or people getting kicked off of flights. There was a recent news article early May 2015 about a teenager with autism who was kicked off a United airlines fight. She apparently just wanted a hot meal instead of a cold one. What was disturbing was that she was not being disruptive to others at all according to the passengers who were sitting near her.  The pilot and flight attendants diverted the airplane and had an “emergency landing”  because of this non-disruptive autistic teenager. Scary for the rest of us mothers to think about our loud and very disruptive toddlers.  Here are some helpful tips to help make your flight a better experience with children.

1.  Bring a FAA approved car seat if your child is under 2.  The airlines do not require it but it is the safest and most comfortable way to fly for your infant or toddler.  It is also best if your child can sit in his/her own seat.  For international flights, you can also reserve a bassinet for your infant.  For kids ages 2-4, there is great product called CARES harness system that is FAA approved.

2.  Do not have your young child sit in the aisle seat.  You don’t want any hot liquids accidentally spilling on your child.  You will also have a harder time keeping those little arms and legs out of aisle.

3.  Bring your child’s favorite stuffed animal, doll, or toy.  You may also want to bring your child’s favorite blanket or pacifier, if he/she uses one, to help your child sleep on the flight.

4.  Bring a bag of new small toys that your child has not seen before and that you can whip out every 15 minutes. Before my trip, I went to the dollar store, Michael’s, Target, and  ToysRUs and bought a whole selection of inexpensive coloring and sticker books, activity packs, play dough, pipe cleaners, small children’s books, finger puppets, and new crayons.  I also asked all my mommy friends which new apps their kids like and uploaded them on to my ipad.   I brought along some kid-friendly head phones.   All of these items helped immensely with my long international flights.  When my daughter was 18 months, she also loved playing with the paper cups the stewardess would give out for drinks.  A happy child is a happy mommy!

5. Healthy snacks for your child, like fruit, crackers, and cheese sticks.  Avoid sugary and salty snacks.  You may also want to bring a few special treats, like gummy fruit snacks or sugar-free lollipops, for those “emergencies” and to help your child chew or suck on something when your plane is descending.  A busy mouth is a quiet mouth.

6. Formula and purified water if your infant needs it.  However, if you are breast feeding, I strongly encourage you to not give up and to keep breastfeeding throughout your trip for several reasons.  Not only will your child be more likely to stay healthy and avoid diarrhea, your child will be more comfortable on the flight descent if you breastfeed at that time.  And you don’t have to worry about keeping those bottles clean and disinfected!

7. Infant carrier, if your baby likes to sleep in it and your hands are free.

If anyone else has any other useful tips, please comment!

What you should put in your travel health kit for your child

Every international traveler should pack a good travel health kit in their carry-on luggage.  But what should you pack if you have kids?  I get asked this question very frequently from parents at my pediatric practice.  Many parents who ask me are either going abroad to visit friends and relatives or going on an international vacation to a tropical destination.  Here is a list of what I think should be in your travel health kit, with your child in mind.

1.  Prescription medications.  Keep these in their original bottles or packaging.  It is also a good idea to bring a copy of your prescriptions.  Your pharmacist can print this out for you.  For certain countries, like Japan and UAE, certain medications, like stimulants or other controlled substances, are limited or prohibited.  Check the U.S. Department of State website,  for up to date information on country specific restrictions.  You may need a letter from your prescribing doctor stating what medications (include generic name) you will be bringing and how much medication you will need if you are bringing controlled substances.  For injectable medications, like insulin, a letter from  your doctor will also be helpful.  If you are bringing an Epi-pen or Auvi-Q on board the flight, a physician’s letter will not be necessary.

2. Special travel prescriptions, like antibiotics and malaria prophylaxis medication. Many medications purchased abroad can be completely fake or falsely packaged.  Do not buy these medications overseas!

3. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen medication.  These medications will be good for fever or pain.  Remember to buy small bottles (less than 3.4 oz) or chewable tablets for kids over 2. Again, do not buy these medications overseas. A travel medicine specialist told me that even paracetamol (which is like acetaminophen) purchased in developing countries can be fake or with false doses.

4. Antihistamines, like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) if your child is over 6 or has a history of allergies. These medications come in fast melt tablets or liquid that are easy for small children to take.  Be careful to use the correct dose for your child since overdose of antihistamines can be dangerous!  Ask you doctor if you have any questions.  Diphenhydramine can be helpful for motion sickness and allergy symptoms, like hives, sneezing, nasal congestion, or itchy eyes.  Many parents ask me about using diphenhydramine to help their kids sleep on the long plane ride.  Boy, do I wish there was something that was safe and works for young children! About 5% of young children have a paradoxical agitation reaction to antihistamines.  This reaction would be far worse on the airplane.  For most children, this medication simply just does not work unless your child is already super tired.  Despite this information, many parents still want to try using diphenydramine. In fact, I know many physician parents, who have also tried it with limited success. In summary, I do not recommend sedating your child with antihistamines on the airplane due to the possible risks.

5. Antibacterial ointment, like bacitracin, for those cuts and scrapes you or your child may get.

6. Basic first aid items, like bandages, gauze, antiseptic, tweezers.

7. 1% Hydrocortisone cream, for itchy insect bites or itchy rashes.

8. Diaper rash cream, if your child still uses diapers. And don’t forget to pack a LARGE supply of diapers in your carry-on luggage.  When my daughter was 2, I almost ran out of diapers on my flight from Mexico.   Talk about a stressful experience!

9.  Anti-motion sickness medication, like Dramamine.  This medication can be especially helpful if you know your child already gets motion sickness or if you will be going on a cruise. There is an OTC Dramamine for kids >2 years.  Since this medication is an antihistamine, remember what I said about the possibility of paradoxical reactions in young children? It may happen in your child.

10. Digital thermometer, if you don’ trust your “mommy touch” or if you have a very young infant with you.

11. Oral rehydration solution (ORS) packets, which will be very important if your child gets diarrhea. You can also buy these in pharmacies in developing countries.  Or you can buy them/order them online before your trip.  Make sure you get the yummy flavored ORS salts!

12. Antibacterial hand wipes and hand sanitizer.  I may be a little germophobic but I usually wipe down the area around my child’s airplane seat and table when we first sit down after boarding our flight.  I also recommend washing hands frequently and thoroughly during the flight and always before eating.  Hand sanitizer is helpful but doesn’t kill all the viruses, including the dreaded Norovirus, a.k.a “No want this virus.”

13. Sunscreen, at least SPF 30.  I really like the new sunblock sticks, that have zinc or titanium oxide as the main ingredient.

14. Insect repellant.  Buy the kind with 20-30% DEET.  OFF makes these really convenient DEET wipes, that are handy for travel.  DEET repellant is safe for infants >2 months of age.

15.  Emergency contact and health insurance card.  Write down your emergency contact’s information, health insurance info, and travel health insurance/medical evacuation info.  If your child has an allergy or a chronic condition, like diabetes or asthma, write this down on the card as well.

16. Extra change of clothes for you and your child. You just never know if your child is going to have an accident or spill juice all over you.  When we went to Cancun, Mexico, my daughter was 2 years old at the time. She spilled juice all over herself twice. I felt embarrassed when other people on the airplane noticed that she was no longer wearing pants.  I wish airlines believed in lids for their cups.

These are the basic essentials of a travel health kit.  For children, who have chronic health conditions, like asthma, diabetes, or severe food allergies, talk to your doctor about other emergency medications you may need.

Preparing for the big trip



Arriving in Chengdu, China


No matter how well you think you have packed and prepared for your trip, something unexpected will happen.  When we left for our 3 month trip around the world, I decided to bring our beloved BOB jogging stroller with us.  The picture above was taken after a 15 hour flight from Seattle to Chengdu, China connecting through S.F.O.  This was the only way that I thought I could make it through all of our flight connections and layovers with a 3 year old.  My daughter loved being in this stroller and most importantly of all, she loved napping in it.  How hard could it be for my husband and I to lug around all of our luggage and a 3 year old through airports, customs, subways, and local streets?

Our family had traveled many times to California, Boston, and Hawaii with this BOB stroller and I did not think anything would happen to this stroller…until the airline lost it in Singapore when we were going to New Zealand. With this stroller, we were able to pull around 3 carry-on luggages, 3 backpacks, and get our 3 year old through customs and to the gate. We decided to pack light for our 3 month trip and not pay extra money for check-in luggage. We were determined to save money where we could.  We had also purchased travel insurance before we left for our trip so we thought we were well prepared.  However, we were not prepared to lose our stroller or to wait 3.5 months for compensation from the airline.  In fact, we did not have any resolution from the airline until we were back home in Bellevue from our journey.

What was the lesson I learned from this?  I learned to expect the unexpected when traveling. I learned not to bring anything of high value, like our BOB stroller, on our trip.  I learned that I could just use an inexpensive $25 folding umbrella stroller for my toddler at the airport and be okay.  And another important fact is that many international airlines outside of the U.S. now charge a significant amount of money to bring a stroller on the airplane.  It is a good idea to call your airline or check their website before you go on your trip so you know their carry-on luggage restrictions.  In the U.S., a carry-on luggage cannot exceed 22 pounds.  Many international airlines now have a weight restriction of 15 pounds for carry-on luggage.  And if you arrive at the airport without purchasing check-in luggage, you may be charged 3 times more money for check-in luggage!  We made this mistake in Singapore. They charged us $75 for one piece of luggage.  Knowing how much you can pack in your carry-on luggage is important, especially when you are traveling on a long international flight with a child. It is always a good idea to check the TSA website for carry-on luggage rules.


Welcome! Bonjour! Ni hao!

I have been a primary care pediatrician in Redmond, WA for 10 years. My pediatric practice recently gave me the luxury of a 3 month sabbatical.  Ever since I was a teenager, I have loved to travel.  Having a toddler was not going to stop me from fulfilling my dream of  traveling  the world with my family.  My husband was fortunate to get time off from his job also so we took this once in a lifetime opportunity to visit 6 countries in 3 months.  We traveled through China, Bali, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, and the Philippines.   I returned from this incredible trip with an even stronger passion for travel but also a new interest in pediatric travel health.   I want to help other families be safe and healthy during their travels. I was inspired to start this blog after attending the CISTM14, a travel medicine conference in Quebec.  I will be sharing some personal stories as well as helpful pre-travel health information to families with children.

As I currently sit in a room with about a thousand healthcare practitioners from all over the world dedicated to travel health, I keep thinking about all the families that I know who are traveling abroad.  Over the last 2 weeks in clinic, I must have met at least 15 families that told me that they were taking trips overseas this summer to places like India, China, Philippines, and South America.  I shared their excitement since I absolutely love travelling.  Yet, only 1 of these families actually made a pre-travel health appointment to discuss their risks overseas.  All of the other parents brought up their summer travels during their child’s well child checks or sick visits.  Most of these families were traveling abroad to visit friends and relatives and staying abroad for a month or more.   There is so much information that families need to know about how to keep themselves safe and healthy while traveling abroad.

Travel medicine is not just about giving vaccines or prescribing medications although those issues are very important.  Parents need to be educated about issues like what to bring in a medication kit, road safety, avoiding bug bites, staying away from wild or stray animals, safe foods and drinks, and how to avoid diseases that they may never even heard about, like schistosomiasis, strongyloides, chikungunya, or zika virus (what is that?).   People going back to their home country and staying longer are at a significantly higher risk of getting serious illnesses, like typhoid fever, malaria, or Japanese encephalitis. In fact, people visiting friends and relatives are 8x more likely to get malaria than other tourists.  These diseases kill and are preventable!  Did you know that 1/3 of travelers get traveler’s diarrhea while abroad?  And children are particularly at high risk of getting dehydrated or even hospitalized.  That would surely be a trip ruiner!

In addition,motor vehicle accidents and accidental injuries, including drowning, are the leading killers of travelers.  Parents need to be extra vigilant with their young children.  I remember trying to cross the road in Guilin, China, with my 3 year old. Drivers in cars and motorcycles did not care that I was in the crosswalk with my daughter.  Many would honk or just continue to drive towards us while I was frantically running across the road.

So why are most parents bringing their children abroad to visit friends and relatives not seeking pre-travel health advice?  Is it because they could not get access to that care?  Is it because they refused care?  Is it because they are not concerned about the health risks abroad?  Do they think they are immune?  Studies show that the vast majority are not concerned about the risks abroad.  The primary purpose of this blog is to educate parents and healthcare providers that getting pre-travel health advice is good preventive medicine.  Many of us buy travel insurance before a major international trip to prevent us from losing money in case unexpected issues or delays arise.  However, only a third of people get pre-travel health advice to prevent major illness or even death when visiting  developing countries.

For people who do seek pre-travel advice, studies show that most ask their primary care provider first.  Now I am proud to say that I work with a fantastic group of pediatricians, who were educated in some of the best medical schools and residency training programs in the country.  Travel medicine, however, was rarely taught in my education.   Pediatricians need to be more up to date  with pediatric travel medicine, especially since most of our patients will not end up going to a specialized travel clinic for various reasons.  Not only do most pediatricians not have enough training in this field, but they also do not have enough time during the visit to discuss it.  Before reading the CDC’s Yellow Book and attending the ISTM conference, I admit that the pre-travel advice I gave to patients who asked me was limited and very rushed.  Many parents ask about travel as a “by the way” question during a visit for a different reason.  And even though I encourage parents to make a separate appointment to discuss their trip, many parents tell me that their trip is next week or that they don’t have time to come back.  This common scenario has compelled me to start an online pre-travel consultation service for my pediatric practice. When is the ideal time for a pre-travel consult?  About 4-6 weeks before your trip.  But if your trip was arranged last-minute or you just simply forgot, it’s never too late to get your pre-travel consultation before you leave.

Through this blog, I am excited to combine my love for travel and my passion for child health.  I am looking forward to sharing my personal stories and educating my fellow travelers.  I will be sharing important health information to families who want to explore other countries with their children and keep them safe and healthy.