In planning mode for an Amazonian adventure? The Amazon rainforest is home to animal and plant species found nowhere else on earth, attracting thousands of travelers each year with its rich biodiversity. However, this natural wonder can be just as dangerous as it is mysterious. Preparation is key to a healthy and happy experience in South America, so get ready to brush up on some key health tips for the jungle.
If you want to zipline through the rainforest canopy or take a dip in a rainforest waterfall, follow one simple rule: vaccination before recreation. Jungle activities can expose you to a host of vaccine-preventable diseases and other health risks, so visit your doctor 6+ weeks before departing and discuss your travel plans. It’s also a good time to ensure your routine immunizations are up to date.1 Additional vaccines you may need to consider for South America:2
Travelers can quickly fall ill when trying to keep up with the locals. Food safety hazards include bacteria, viruses and parasites, which can often present themselves due to poor sanitation and hygiene standards.3 For example, food and water can carry diseases like cholera, hepatitis A, schistosomiasis and typhoid. Practise safe food and water precautions while travelling in South America.2 It’s recommended you stick to bottled, boiled or chemically disinfected water and avoid drinks with ice – freezing water into ice preserves, rather than kills, germs. If you want to taste the local cuisine, stick to this rule: boil it, cook it, peel it or forget it.4 Eat foods that are well cooked and served hot. Avoid raw foods (salads or fruits and vegetables you cannot peel yourself) or undercooked foods. In addition, do not eat unpasteurized dairy products (don’t assume milk and cheese are pasteurized – so that includes ice cream) and fruit juices.5
One of the most compelling reasons to visit the Amazon is the array of wildlife. However, it is important to remember wildlife is just that – wild – and can be carriers of life-threatening diseases such as rabies. This disease can be found in dogs, monkeys, snakes, bats and other mammals and transmitted through close contact with infectious fluids like saliva through a bite or scratch.2,5 While the risk of travelers contracting rabies is low, the consequences can be deadly. Once symptoms develop, rabies is nearly always fatal, so ensure you seek medical advice immediately if you suspect contact with a rabid animal.5 In the meantime, clean the wound thoroughly by washing and flushing with soap and water for at least 15 minutes.5 This risk does increase for extended travel, so if you are jungle bound, it’s likely your doctor will recommend the rabies vaccination before your trip.5
In some areas in South America, certain insects carry and spread diseases like American trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease), chikungunya, dengue fever, leishmaniasis, malaria, onchocerciasis, West Nile virus, yellow fever and Zika virus.2 Long shirts and pants are a must for jungle travel. They will help protect you from the irritation of plants and insect bites, and especially mosquitos, which are carriers of malaria, yellow fever, West Nile, chikungunya, dengue fever and Zika virus. Also use a strong insect repellent on exposed skin. As a note, cases of malaria have been recorded in 91 countries around the world.6 Your doctor may recommend preventative medicine you need to take; however it is still important to protect yourself through clothing, bed nets and bug spray as no anti-malarial drug is 100% effective.7 Mentioned earlier in relation to drinking water safety is schistosomiasis, which is caused by parasitic worms. Avoid swimming in bodies of fresh water (lakes, ponds, streams and rivers) as this disease is acquired by exposure to contaminated water.2,4
There are many health and safety risks endemic to jungle travel, so ensure you pack your common sense and never leave home without travel insurance, which covers medical costs and repatriation expenses.2 Do not expect medical services to be as good as they are here in Canada. Those in large cities are adequate but facilities in rural areas vary in quality.2 Many doctors expect cash payment regardless of insurance and may be very expensive, so take care to allow for the unexpected.2 This health and safety advice is just the tip of the iceberg for an Amazonian adventure, so be sure to continue your research and speak to your healthcare provider about your itinerary and trip plans.