For many international travelers, visiting a travel medicine clinic ranks pretty low on the pre-departure checklist. Christopher A. Sanford, M.D., MPH, would like to change that. He’s a UW associate professor of global health and family medicine and the director of the UW Medicine Northgate travel clinic. His latest book, Staying Healthy Abroad: A Global Traveler’s Guide, aims to help everyone travel the world safely. We talked with Dr. Sanford about his work in travel medicine — and his advice for your next trip.
How did you build a career in tropical medicine and travelers’ health?
I grew up in southern California, and my parents were teachers who got summers off. We would load up the car in June and go to Mexico for three months. When I became a family medicine doctor, I still traveled a lot, but I didn’t think of mixing medicine and travel for about a decade. I also help teach a three-month tropical medicine course in Uganda.
Why should someone consult a travel doctor?
If you’re visiting a low-income nation, there are some additional risks, and a lot of medical providers don’t really have the expertise or the vaccines to address those issues. So seeing someone at a travel clinic — UW Medicine has about 10 of them — is a good idea. We address the traditional topics, like immunizations, but we also address safety concerns that people don’t always associate with travel. If you’re pregnant or elderly or have a chronic medical condition, we can help you with additional travel preparation. Also, bring a few things to the clinic: your vaccine record, a list of your medications and your trip itinerary. Where you’re going will determine if you need a malaria pill or particular vaccines.
What surprises patients the most about travel risk?
My patients are surprised to learn I believe that travel is generally low-risk, even in low-income countries. Most places are not intrinsically dangerous or intrinsically safe. However, travelers can do things that are safe or dangerous. This danger isn’t confined to infections or illnesses. In fact, disease is less of a risk than things like road traffic injuries, drowning, falls from heights or being hit by a motor vehicle. I always make sure to talk with patients about helmets, seat belts and safety.
Can you share some road safety tips?
Put a seat belt on, if there is one. When I find a taxi company that uses seat belts, I’ll book them for the rest of my trip. It may cost more, but I’m willing to spend it for my peace of mind. Another tip: Don’t do what the locals do if it would be considered dangerous at home — like getting on the roof of a bus or in the back of an open truck. Motorcycles are high-risk; if you do ride one, wear a helmet.
As a pedestrian, always look both ways, because it’s confusing when traffic is coming at you from the other direction. Don’t text as you walk; stay alert. In low-income countries, there could be a hole in the sidewalk with no signs around it, and if you’re texting, you could break a leg or an ankle. And don’t use headphones as you walk; being able to hear something approaching you is a good thing.
What should travelers put in their first-aid kit?
Take whatever medications you’ve used over the last year, because they won’t necessarily be available. I take ibuprofen, Benadryl, bandages, antibiotic cream and tape, plus a pair of tweezers for splinters. Since I wear glasses, I take one of those itty-bitty screwdrivers for repairs. Glasses tend to get sat on or broken, so take your eye prescription in case you need to replace them. Also, keep a list of your medications and a summary of your medical history. For example, if you have a heart condition, take a copy of your EKG, so you have some basic medical records if you need care.
Do you travel often? What’s your next destination?
I still do travel. I’ve been to 54 countries and have liked them all. Up until 20 years ago, my main area was Latin America; about 15 years ago, I switched over to Africa. I’ve been to about 14 African countries, but that means there’s over 35 I haven’t been to. And my wife and I will be visiting Oman in the near future.
I see myself as a travel enabler. It may be a little idealistic, but I think travel fosters world peace.