Cathy Huynh, left, and Kari Bowerman took this photo while backpacking in Vietnam.

When You Travel, It’s More than The Water That Can Kill You

When you are traveling in foreign places, you never know what might happen. Take the recent case reported by CNN of two young women backpacking in Vietnam who died under mysterious circumstances. The authorities are still tracing the cause of their death, but the symptoms seem to point to poisoning. However, the source of the poison is unclear.Cathy Huynh, left, and Kari Bowerman took this photo while backpacking in Vietnam.

Based on the news reports, and other related cases of tourists mysteriously dying, I am willing to speculate that the deaths were caused by strong pesticides used in their hotel. The news report states that this is just the latest in a series of tourist deaths in Vietnam and Thailand, local hotels use chlorpyrifos to fight bed bugs. This particular chemical is banned for use in homes and hotels in most countries, but is still legal in Vietnam and Thailand.  Local exterminators use the insecticide in large quantities for pest control; large enough to cause death in tourists, although it is difficult to prove since the chemical leaves the body within a day.

So the lesson provided here goes beyond the simple advisory, “don’t drink the water.” Beware of your surroundings!  If your hotel room smells of insecticide or something hazardous, don’t take the risk – get out! If you are uncertain about health regulations in your destination country, check it out in advance. Ask others about their experience and make sure you have some idea of the risks. Had these women had any idea that their health problems were poison related, and had mentioned a smell in their hotel room, the doctors may have had more information to formulate a better treatment plan.

CNN also shared some tips for healthier travel, such as:

  1. Be prepared: Check with the U.S. government about your destination. Also check the World Health Organization International Travel and Health guide  and  World Health Organization Travel Warnings.Also be sure to have your health checked within a month of departing on your journey.
  2. Consider medical insurance: You want to make sure you have access to health care, including emergency health care, and in case of a real emergency you have coverage for emergency medical evacuation. (In this case, travel insurance would have covered the cost of returning one of the women’s remains to Wisconsin – a $10,000 expense according to the news report.)
  3. Pack for health: Be sure to leave room in your carry-on for medical documents and a medical kit. Pack extra doses of medications, first aid supplies, antibiotics, and other supplies that may not be easy to find on the road. Also pack an emergency contact list, including numbers for the local consulate and aid agencies.
  4. Don’t wait for treatment: The most common ailments are gastrointestinal problems, respiratory illness, pain, and cuts and scrapes. However, tropical diseases like malaria become deadly very fast, with little warning. Even routine stomach trouble can lead to diarrhea and severe dehydration. Seek treatment promptly.
  5. Be aware: Ask questions about medical practices and sterilization. Be sure syringes and medical equipment is properly sterilized. And if you take care of yourself and watch your alcohol intake, you can apply common sense to most situations and stay out of trouble.