U.S. Travelers Clueless About Hepatitis Risk
Survey reveals widespread misconceptions about disease
By Jeff Kelliher
FRIDAY, April 20 (HealthScout) -- With more Americans traveling to exotic locales, a new survey shows few seem to understand the risks for serious liver diseases that await them.
More than 6,000 U.S. travelers were questioned recently by Hepatitis Foundation International, and the answers showed many Americans are clueless about the risks of getting hepatitis A or B in overseas lands. Worse yet, many may be needlessly exposing themselves to these serious liver infections.
Nearly 75 percent of survey participants had not sought pre-travel counseling from a health-care provider. In addition, almost 70 percent wrongly believed that hepatitis A is spread through contact with blood or other body fluids.
In truth, hepatitis A is acquired by eating contaminated food, or drinking or swimming in contaminated water. Hepatitis B, on the other hand, can be transmitted through sex as well as through accidental cuts, abrasions or contact with contaminated medical equipment.
"Most American travelers, at least, have very little appreciation of health risks overseas," says travel medicine expert Dr. Brad Connor. "So the facts of the survey really underscore the need for more education in this area."
Connor says hepatitis A can cause fever, nausea, fatigue, jaundice and stomach pain, and can be severe enough to land you in the hospital. Hepatitis B can cause acute illness plus chronic liver disease, liver cancer and cirrhosis. More than 6,000 Americans die from hepatitis B each year.
"For travel outside North America, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, the risk of hepatitis A is there," says Connor. "But it's the most common vaccine-preventable, travel-related infection."
Connor says carriers of hepatitis B often don't know they're infected, and can pass the disease to unwitting travelers through sexual contact.
"There are 350 million chronic carriers of hepatitis B in the world, and the highest prevalence areas are places like Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America," explains Connor. "So if we have a traveler going to [one of these areas], the hepatitis B vaccine is something we consider very strongly."
Dr. Gregory Juckett, a travel medicine expert, is not surprised by the study's results.
"Hepatitis A vaccination is probably the most important vaccination travelers need in order to go abroad," says Juckett. "This doesn't have to be exotic travel to Africa, either. Just a trip to the Caribbean or to Cancun on spring break can result in hepatitis A if you're not careful."
Juckett says vaccines are important because even travelers who are cautious about where they swim and what they eat and drink can be at risk.
"It's easy to go in and swim in what appears to be very clear ocean waters not realizing that raw sewage is being pumped in up the coast a bit," says Juckett. "And even in fancy resort hotels you have to remember that the kitchen help may come from a rural village that doesn't use toilet paper."
Juckett's observation supports the survey's results, which found almost 30 percent of those surveyed didn't believe they could contract hepatitis A from eating at a fancy restaurant.
"Even when you do exercise due care, I think the vaccine is a good idea," says Juckett. "That's because you can never be 100 percent sure."
What To Do
Experts advise travelers heading abroad to consult with a health-care provider as part of their vacation preparations.
"Both A and B are very effectively prevented by immunization," says Connor. "These disease can't be treated, so really the responsibility lies in prevention."
For the best protection, ask your doctor for a hepatitis A vaccination at least a month before traveling. But for procrastinators, Juckett says two weeks will work.
Hepatitis B vaccines involve a series of three shots, and should be coordinated with your doctor before visiting high-risk areas, says Juckett.