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Keep Your Kids Healthy while Exploring Exotic Destinations

So your teenager daughter has been glued to Temptation Island and she’s caught up with the romance of Belize. In fact, she’s pushing to spend next March break in that tiny Central American country. And what about copying some of those dream dates, especially the one in the underwater caves where the dreamy couple drifted along together in the dark, the lights from their headlamps flickering off the liquid pools?

Hey, we’d all like such a break from reality. But how safe is it to take our kids to such tropical settings in Central or South America, or even down to Mexico where Montezuma still wreaks his revenge on tourists who eat salad? We may want to sleep in jungle lodges, trek through the rain forest, or taste every local seafood you can throw onto a grill. But should we take the kids along? And what kind of risks are we exposing them to?

One look at tropical disease web sites and you’d keep them home forever—dengue fever in Costa Rica and Guatemala, malaria in Dominican Republic, yellow fever in Brazil not to mention hookworm picked up on some Caribbean beaches or travelers’ diarrhea from one too many Mexican fruit smoothies. But by following health and safety precautions, you can include your kids on your next tropical journey.

BEFORE YOU GO: Travel medicine has become an important specialty, And travel clinics staffed by doctors in the know such as the Travel Medicine Clinic at 700 Bay St. are popping up across the country. Pay an early visit, especially if you need a series of shots for destinations such as Africa. Make sure that your kids are up to date on their boosters and their measles, mumps, and rubella shots. Pack a good first aid kit including powdered re-hydration salts for severe diarrhea, antihistamine and lotion for insect bites and simple amenities that we take for granted. One mom was shocked when she couldn’t hunt down bandaids or kids’ sunscreen in Costa Rica. Don’t forget medications in their original bottles, and if possible, a written prescription in case you need a refill.

FEEDING AND WATERING: Probably the biggest risk to any child older than a breastfeeding baby is dehydration from diarrhea. Number One rule: avoid food that’s been washed or made with untreated water such as strawberries, salads, ice cream, or fruit smoothies. Lettuce is particularly dangerous so forget the burger toppings. As the saying goes, “If you can’t boil it, peel it, cook it—forget it.”

Similarly, drink only bottled or boiled water and have the kids brush their teeth with it. At a recent Travel Medicine Conference in Mexico, even the doctors drank only bottled water. Make sure you see the capped bottle. No ice please. Parents may order bottled drinks only to find that kindly waiters have added ice cubes. When you leave the resort, take along extra bottles in case the kids get thirsty. If your kids don’t like plain water, bring packets of flavoured drink crystals to add for taste.

If your kid’s an adventurous eater, pay attention to seafood. Shellfish should be boiled, not steamed.

COVER UP: If you’re traveling to an area with malaria or dengue fever (both transmitted by mosquitoes), make sure the kids stay covered up and sleep under netting. Apply repellent that’s at least 30 percent DEET every four to six hours. Have them wear beach shoes on unknown beaches to prevent hookworm (most busy resort beaches are fine) or to avoid stepping on sea urchins in shallow rock pools.

CONSULT THE EXPERTS: If your kids do become sick, see a doctor. Many resort doctors make visits around the clock—some such as the Pierre Marques Hotel in Acapulco have a clinic on site—and IAMAT (International Association for Medical Assitance to Travellers) publishes a book of doctors around the world who speak English. Call 416-652-0137 or watch for www.iamat.org.

There’s a wealth of information and advice out there. Call the Toronto Hospital’s Centre for Travel and Tropical Medicine at 416-340-3000. Check www.hc—sc.gc.ca for Health Canada’s Travel Medicine Program advising on specific situations. Their 24-hr. fax link service: 613-941-3900. The www.travelclin.com has links to Health Canada, Centre for Disease Control in the U.S. and World Health Organization as well as advisory reports from the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and the US State Department. Travel expert Mark Wise has links on his own site, www.drwisetravel.com, to travel clinics across Canada. At www.travmed.com, you’ll find books, information on traveling with kids (such as when to start scuba diving—12 years), a product catalogue, and newsletter.

Finally, despite all of this overwhelming information, relax. Thousands of kids travel the world each year and come home with nary a scratch. Remember that far more hospital visits result from motor vehicle accidents each year than from tropical diseases. So Belize, here we come!





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