Rio de Janeiro is expecting about 500,000 visitors for the Olympic and Paralympic games this August. If you’re one of them, there are a few things you need to consider in order to have a safe, happy and healthy trip to Brazil this year.
1. Make sure you’re up to date on all your vaccines.
This is travel safety 101. Infectious disease loves a crowd, and one way to make sure a nasty bug doesn’t hitch a ride with you is to get vaccinated.
What to do: Make an appointment with a travel doctor now to make sure you’re current on all your regular vaccines (measles, mumps, rubella, etc.) and then take a look at all the vaccines suggested specifically for Brazil. In addition to the routine ones like the flu shot and chickenpox, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends Hepatitis A and Typhoid (the latter is especially recommended for “adventurous” eaters). Depending on your activities and where you’re staying, you might also consider vaccines for Yellow Fever and Hepatitis B, as well as preventive medications for malaria.
“Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world with varied disease risks depending on where they plan on going in the country,” says travel medicine expert Tania Gregorian, an assistant professor at Chapman University School of Pharmacy and faculty at Cedars Sinai Medical Care Foundation. “For example, planning a trip into the Amazon requires different preparation than a trip to just Rio De Janeiro.”
When to do it: Remember that some vaccines can take a few weeks before they become effective (Hepatitis A, for instance, takes two to four weeks to start working) while others are given in series, like the Hepatitis B vaccine, so get on this as soon as possible.
2. Prepare for the worst
Like getting travel health insurance (which you should probably consider), this is one of those thing you hope you never have to use ― but you’ll be glad you have it if something scary goes down.
What to do: The Smart Traveller Enrollment Program is a free service that allows you to register with the local U.S. embassy and hooks you up with country-specific alerts in the event of a natural disaster, civil unrest or any other kind of unexpected event. It also helps friends and family back home get in contact with you if there’s an emergency.
When to do it: It’s best to do this before you leave town. That way the alerts can start immediately and you won’t be caught unaware when you eventually do arrive.
3. Realize that the mosquito threat is real
Now on to the stuff everyone is talking about. The Zika virus, which has been implicated in severe birth defects and neurological conditions, is spread through mosquito bites.
What to do: There is no vaccine for Zika virus, so one of the main ways to prevent it is to protect yourself from mosquitoes. Wear long sleeves and pants and mosquito repellant every day, and sleep in air conditioned rooms with properly fitted window screens. Taking these precautions will also protect you from dengue and yellow fever, which are also making the rounds in some parts of Brazil.
To avoid mosquitoes, the World Health Organization also recommends that visitors avoid spending time in poor, crowded parts of the city. The lack of running water and poor sanitation make an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes.
And just because you plan on sticking to Rio for the games, don’t think that the mosquito risk disappears. In fact, the Aedes Aegypti mosquito that spreads Zika virus, dengue and yellow fever is known as an “urban mosquito” or the “cockroach of mosquitoes” because it loves living in cities near trash and clean water sources. And of course, it loves biting humans.
Pregnant women should not attend the Olympics because of the risk Zika virus poses to a developing fetus, recommends the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and WHO. But if they must travel, women should speak to their doctors before the trip.
When to do it: Ask your hotel about its mosquito control measures and the kind of ventilation and windows your room with have before booking. Pack the right clothing and your own mosquito repellant, as occasional reports of repellant shortages have cropped up this year. Then take anti-mosquito measures every day of your trip.
4. Plan on safe sex
The Olympics is basically one huge, weeks-long party, and the “celebratory atmosphere” (as the CDC puts it) might have you feeling more sexually adventurous than usual.
What to do: As you would at home, make sure you’re using condoms during all your Olympics sexcapades, and that you purchase them from reputable stores or bring some of your own from home.
A bunch of diseases can be transmitted sexually, including HIV, herpes, gonorrhea, chlamydia and the Zika virus. The Zika virus in particular presents an extraordinary risk to developing fetuses, so male travelers with pregnant partners should either practice abstinence or wear a condom during all forms of sex throughout the entire pregnancy.
When to do it: Women who aren’t pregnant but who do travel to the games should wait at least eight weeks before trying to conceive; for men that waiting period is at least six months, the CDC advises.
5. Avoid swimming in lakes, rivers and certain beaches
Freshwater lakes and rivers may have parasitic worms that may make you sick, but Olympic watchdogs are also sounding the alarm about ocean bays and beaches that are filled with raw sewage, dead fish and trash. Most alarming, these bodies of water are slated to host competitions like the triathlon, marathon swimming, rowing and sailing.
As of this publication date, the U.S. Olympic Committee has expressed concerns about water safety but also point out that they doubt the risks would stop qualifying athletes from competing. And the International Olympic Committee said they would stick with bacterial testing to measure the presence of feces in the water rather than attempt to measure viruses. That’s actually in keeping with the recommendation of the World Health Organization, which doesn’t recommend viral water testing to assess risk potential for athletes and instead reserves it as a method of confirming an established disease outbreak.
What to do: It would take ingesting a relatively tiny amount of water ― three teaspoons ― to make someone violently ill, according to scientists commissioned by The Associated Press to study the viruses floating in Brazil’s beach water. What’s more, athletes who have already tested the waters for trials have reported diarrhea, vomiting and fever, AP reports.
“Vaccination against some of the contagious diseases found within the waters such as hepatitis A and typhoid fever is going to be critical for travelers who want to swim,” said Gregorian. “My advice would be to not swim in the most polluted water (Ipanema and Guanabara Bay), but if you take the risk of swimming, make sure to not swallow any of the water and shower immediately after.”
Spectators and visitors should stick to swimming in chlorinated pools.
When to do it: Get those typhoid and hepatitis A vaccines as soon as possible if you plan on swimming.
6. Watch what you eat and drink
If you’re lucky, you’re going to eat so much amazing barbecue, a fish stew called moqueca and down lots of caipirinha cocktails. #YOLO, but realize that you can get foodborne illnesses like typhoid, hepatitis A and traveler’s diarrhea from food that was unhygienically prepared.
What to do: Make sure you’re buying your food from a clean-looking, reputable source. But just because it comes from the street, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unsafe. If the food is steaming hot, it’s probably safe, no matter where you bought it. There’s more danger in foods that are raw or have been left to sit a while.
When to do it: To be completely prepared, ask your travel doctor (the one who is also administering your vaccines) to prescribe some antibiotics for you to bring on your trip, just in case the runs hit. Then throughout your trip, use common sense to see which foods to eat and which to avoid.
And finally, for slightly strange, highly specific advice, the CDC even has some insight for which hotel floor you should request when booking a room.
“If possible, choose hotel rooms on the second through the sixth floors,” they advise on their Olympics safety site. “A room on the first floor of a hotel may provide easier access for criminals. Rooms on the seventh floor or above may be difficult to escape in the event of a fire.”
Once you’re done getting all your shots and packing essential medicines, mosquito repellant and condoms in your luggage, don’t forget one more thing: An American flag to wave in the stands. USA! USA!
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