The only real health issues I have had while traveling in Peru are mosquito and sand fly bites and sunburn. Nothing worse than I would find back in the United States. Keep in mind I have spent several months in the Amazon too, much of it sleeping in hammocks in third world conditions. That isn’t to say that other diseases and health issues are not to be of concern, they are and you should take every precaution necessary. However, they are often less of an issue than many would expect.
Yellow fever is a virus infection transmitted by the bite of an infected mosquito. The effects vary from mild to life threatening; some forms even include hepatitis. One in six people infected with the disease experience serious illness, otherwise they encounter basic flu like symptoms. The yellow fever virus infects wild monkeys and typically only infects humans who are in close proximity to monkey habitats (i.e. forestry and agricultural workers). Yellow fever infection is very rare in travelers to South America. A vaccination is recommended if traveling to jungle areas. It will lasts for 10 years and you will receive a certificate. It is required if traveling from Peru to Brazil.
Malaria is a risk only in Amazon areas or in the far north near Tumbes. Most will take malaria pills such as Doxycycline or Mefloquine. If you don’t take the pills the chance of getting malaria is still slim. Determine this by finding a county’s status through the CDC (http://www.cdc.gov/travel) or consult your doctor/travel clinic. Above all, avoiding mosquitoes is the most important part. There are a few things you can do. Stay inside between dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are most active. Don’t wear dark colored clothing, perfume, cologne, or after-shave which all attract mosquitoes. Wear clothes that cover most of your body, stay in screened areas when possible, and use mosquito nets. Use mosquito repellent whenever you go outside, particularly repellent with DEET. The affects of malaria include flu like symptoms such as fevers, headaches, and muscle aches and may develop as long as one month after getting bitten by a mosquito. Severe cases may lead to nerve damage, seizures, comas, and possibly death.
Dengue is again a virus transmitted by mosquitoes and is found in almost all tropical areas. In endemic areas, about one traveler in a thousand will develop dengue. Symptoms develop about 5-8 days after being bitten by an affected mosquito and include very mild infections to a severe Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever (DHF).
Diarrhea afflicts about 20-30 percent of travelers to developing countries. The affliction involves loose and frequent bowl movements, sometimes with cramps, nausea, bloating, fever, and malaise. It comes on strong, usually when you least expect it. Ten percent of cases last more than a week. Let’s hope that’s not you. To prevent traveler’s diarrhea (TD) have all food boiled, peeled, and cooked. As for water, only use bottled water for drinking and teeth brushing and avoid ice in most places. Eat small snacks often, but avoid things like caffeine and dairy. You must eat however. The nutrients will repair any membrane damage caused by TD.
Chagas is a protozoa that infects more than 16 million Latin Americans, causing around 50,000 deaths annually. The parasite grows in the gastrointestinal tracts of triantomine bugs, bed bugs known as “kissing bugs,” which bite you on the face while you sleep. The bugs are most often found in the ceilings and walls of mud and substandard houses. The feces of the bug is rubbed into any wound or sore unknowingly. The disease is lifelong.
Most travelers will be affected by some degree of altitude sickness, or Soroche. Each person reacts differently to changes in altitude. There is no apparent correlation to level of fitness, body weight, or sex. In areas of high altitude one must increase their breathing rate in order to properly oxygenate the body, as is best seen when walking uphill. Just take a walk around Cuzco and you will definitely notice. Shortness of breath is common and will quickly go away with a short rest. To acclimatize the body must adjust to having less oxygen. The process usually takes several days. So, for the first few days in high altitude drink lots of water and keep hydrated, as much as 2 liters per day. Steer clear of caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco until you are acclimatized. Get plenty of sleep at night. So, just take it slow. Drinking Coca tea or mate de coca is recommended and thought to help cure the sickness. Sorjchi pills are recommended as well and can be found in most drugstores in Peru. Some are affected quite badly by the altitude and the only cure may be to go to a lower altitude. Symptoms include shortness of breath, headaches, nosebleeds, confusion, memory loss, strange dreams, insomnia, nausea, and vomiting. More severe cases lead to swelling of the brain, comas and even death. Some may be at high altitudes for a week before the sickness hits them. For others they will know right away and for some nothing at all will occur.
Author Tip: For up to date information for travelers check out the US Centers for Disease Control website www.cdc.gov/travel.
Tips for Avoiding Illness in Peru
-Only drink bottled, boiled, or treated water.
-Be careful with raw vegetables and fruits.
-Avoid eating from street vendors (particularly uncooked food).
-Rest on the first day of your arrival to the Highlands, and consume light meals to prevent altitude illness (soroche). Drinking “coca tea” or taking Soroche pills is recommended.
-If you travel to the Highlands or to the Jungle, make sure to carry insect repellent and a raincoat.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.