Thursday, April 7, 2011

Staying healthy when traveling with kids

Today, April 7th, 2011 is World Health Day, sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO). I've previously written about how to stay healthy on board airplanes when traveling with kids, but of course, it's not just on the airplane you can get sick. In some countries there is a risk of contracting serious diseases like malaria and yellow fever, and getting sick from what you eat while on vacation is almost a cliche.

Poking around the WHO website I found some very good resources for travelers, including an interactive map that shows what diseases, if any, are common in various countries, and what immunizations are recommended for travelers going there. The website also has a page for Disease Outbreak News.

There is also a Guide on Safe Food for Travelers with advice on how to handle food in order to minimize the risk of getting sick, how to make sure the water you're drinking is as safe as possible, and how to deal with diarrhea in infants, young children and adults (just in case someone still gets sick).

This guide includes "5 keys to safer food" that are things many of us know about already, but that we maybe don't think about (or practice!) enough: at least until we get sick. The 5 keys are:
  1. Keep clean - Do this by washing your hands often and especially before handling and consuming food. When I'm traveling with my kids, I wash my own hands all the time, and try to make the kids wash theirs, but I also wipe everyone's hands frequently with antibacterial wipes or rub them with hand-sanitizer.
  2. Separating raw and cooked food - This is to avoid that raw food contaminated with micro-organisms contaminates safe, cooked food. The WHO recommends travelers avoid uncooked foods except fruits and vegetables that can be peeled or shelled. It can be hard to do this, but it can definitely help you stay healthy.
  3. Food should be cooked thoroughly - Again, to avoid getting sick from disease-causing micro-organisms. If your food is cooked through and steaming hot, it's safer than if it's undercooked and raw. Kind of depressing for someone like me who loves medium-rare steaks and sushi... but I guess you follow the advice more or less strictly depending on the country you go to and the specific restaurant you're in.
  4. Food should be kept at safe temperatures - The WHO mentions that foods that are kept warm for hours can be more likely to contain bacteria that cause disease. The organization recommends travelers avoid these kinds of foods at buffets, markets and street vendors if it is not either kept steaming hot or kept on ice.
  5. Choose safe water and food - The WHO cautions that ice cream, ice cubes, water and raw milk can easily become contaminated. Bottled water is usually safe, but check the seal to make sure it really is bottled water and not tap water poured into a bottle. Boiling water works well to kill most organisms that can make people sick.
All this advice can be hard to follow to the letter when you're traveling, especially if you're traveling with kids who may put things in their mouths that are definitely not safe, and may get their hands dirty in ways you can't foresee.

On our latest trip I was initially a bit worried about the fresh fruit, veggies, ice cream and desserts the kids ate regularly, but they didn't get sick so I guess we were lucky (or maybe our sanitized hands just killed all microbes...?). We did limit ourselves to drinking bottled water, but other than that we didn't restrict ourselves much at all.

Of course, we were in the Canary Islands, which are part of Spain and listed on the WHO's map as low risk for pretty much everything. I've bookmarked that map now, because I'm thinking that checking it before I travel anywhere with my kids in the future could definitely help keep me and them healthy!

The WHO website really is chock-full of information, and if you're traveling you might want to check out their International Travel and Health page. It has updates on recent crisis, like earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as disease distribution maps for diseases like hepatitis A and B, cholera and rabies.

Finally, I will once again recommend my favorite weapons against getting sick while traveling:

Wet Ones Antibacterial Moist Towelette, Cloth, 5-3/4 x 7-1/2, White, 40 Wipes per DispenserGerm-X Hand Sanitizer with Moisturizing Vitamin E - 4/10oz. Bottles


  1. I was in Spain for my lastVacations with kids. We really had to make the necessary efforts to enjoy healthy with our kids. I agree with all the items you mention here. Madrid is full of great family entertainment opportunities. I was there last year and my kids enjoyed themselves pretty much. I would definately come back. Spanish people are very much aware of their food and culture, as you said. And their country is simply stunning!

  2. Spain is fantastic, I agree. And I found that people were so welcoming and friendly towards kids as well, which was really nice. Hoping to go back! :)

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