Get the right treatment for nasty travel bugs, says Liberty Medical Scheme

May 2014: Getting sick while travelling is inconvenient and can be very uncomfortable when you are far away from home. With more South Africans travelling, both for business and leisure to destinations in Africa, the Far East as well as Middle East, the risk of contracting a deadly disease from vectors such as mosquitoes, bugs, ticks, flies and freshwater snails is on the rise. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) annual World Health Day on April 7, focused on vector-borne diseases, carried by these organisms from person to person and place to place. Because of environmental changes and increased travelling, some vector-borne diseases have re-emerged or spread to new parts of the world in the past two decades.

“Travellers from South Africa face a number of risks – the biggest being contracting malaria while working in remote locations,” says Liberty Medical Scheme’s Executive Principal Officer, Andrew Edwards.

Traditionally regarded as a problem for countries in tropical settings, vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, yellow fever and others pose an increasing threat to global public health, both in terms of the number of people affected and their geographic spread.

“We’re seeing more and more South Africans travelling up into Africa and to destinations such as China,” says Edwards. “It’s critical that travellers check what cover they have through their medical scheme in the event that they fall ill while away from home.”

Edwards says the risk of contracting a vector-borne disease such as malaria and yellow fever differs from country to country.

“With these types of diseases, you need to be diagnosed as quickly as possible so treatment can be started,” says Edwards. “In some countries, visiting a local hospital may be sufficient for diagnosis, but in others and depending on your location, infrastructure may be poor or non-existent and it’s best to get home as quickly for treatment as possible.”

At Liberty Medical Scheme we offer members an additional service in the form of providing access to International Travel Cover. This service is available on most options except the network options. This covers members who travel outside of South Africa for leisure and business and provides cover of up to R5 million per trip, for up to 90 days per trip. Cover of R10 million per trip is available on our top option. As with all insurance, there are exclusions for which there is no cover and then some exclusions for which members need additional cover (at their own cost), e.g. if you participate in activities that could be considered hazardous as per the terms and conditions set out in the policy, if you are between 80 and 84 years of age, etc.

Malaria tops the list of dangerous diseases

In Africa, malaria remains one of the biggest killers. The WHO reports that in 2012, malaria killed about 627 000 people, mostly in Africa. Because people only start showing symptoms of malaria about one to three weeks after being bitten by a malaria-carrying mosquito, travellers are often back in South Africa by the time they fall ill.

“Before you leave, check whether your medical scheme covers your treatment for malaria both in and out of hospital,” says Edwards.

Edwards adds that if you are travelling to a high risk malaria area, such as Southern and West Africa, exposure for even short periods of time can result in you getting malaria. “In other parts of Africa, simply avoiding mosquitoes can help – such as covering up at night, using insect repellent and sleeping under a mosquito net.”

Check with your medical scheme whether they cover the costs of preventative medicines such as chemoprophylaxis before and during your stay in high risk areas.

It is also a good idea to take out additional travel insurance and read the fine print of any travel insurance offered on your credit card.

Before you leave:

  • Pack a full supply of any medications that you may need while travelling. Carry them in their original containers.
  • Check to see if vaccinations are suggested or required in the country you’re visiting. Visit a travel clinic to ensure you get the relevant vaccinations required. Proof of Yellow Fever vaccination is required for a number of countries in Africa.
  • Before you leave home, find out where to get proper healthcare at your destination, and be sure to carry your medical scheme card and proof of International Travel Cover with you at all times.
  • Watch for flu-like symptoms upon your return. Any such manifestation should result in a doctor consultation straight away to rule out malaria.
  • If you are travelling to remote locations, consider taking your own medical kit, including items such as syringes for emergency treatment especially in the case of malaria. Ask your doctor what signs to look out for and how to use the medication so you can treat it timeously before the symptoms become exacerbated.
  • If you have a pre-existing condition, carry a letter from your doctor explaining what the condition is and how it is being treated. Include your doctor’s contact details.