Health & safety
No special vaccines are required or recommended for travel to Antarctica. All travelers should be up-to-date on the routine immunizations listed below. Bring medications in their original containers, clearly labeled. Also bring a signed, dated letter from your physician describing all medical conditions and medications, including generic names, and syringes or needles.
If your health insurance does not cover medical expenses abroad, consider organizing supplemental insurance. Find out in advance if your insurance plan will make payments directly to providers or reimburse you later for overseas health expenditures.
There is a wealth of travel health advice on the internet. For further information, Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com) is a good place to start with loads of general information. The World Health Organization (www.who.int/ith/) annually publishes a free, superb online book, called International Travel and Health. The website www.mdtravelhealth.com provides complete travel health recommendations for every country.
Tourists are largely shielded from Antarctica’s worst dangers such as blizzards and crevasses, but life aboard ship has its own unique hazards. Always keep ‘one hand for the ship’ in case you suddenly need support as the ship rolls. Take care not just when climbing ladders and stairs, but anywhere that a sudden slam into furniture could result in a fractured limb or skull – yes, it happens nearly every year. A vessel pushing through ice can lurch suddenly, pitching an unaware passenger onto his or her nose. Doors likewise can swing dangerously, so don’t curl your fingers around door jambs. Wide-open decks can be slippery with rain, snow or oil, so take it easy when moving about. Beware of raised doorsills, stanchions and other shipboard hardware, which can easily trip you.
Shipboard theft is so unusual that many passengers on Antarctic cruises don’t even lock their cabin doors. A greater annoyance usually is dealing with balky or lost cabin keys.
If you fall overboard, you will die. Although this may not be true in every case, it is almost certain, as human survival in the 4°C water of the Southern Ocean is calculated in minutes. Since drowning is thought by some to be preferable to freezing to death, one bit of only half-cynical advice for those who fall overboard is to swim as hard as you can for the bottom. In March 2003, within 10km of Cape Horn, a male passenger disappeared from a tourist ship returning to Ushuaia from the Antarctic Peninsula. Because the sea was approximately 11°C, his survival time was calculated at approximately half an hour. Despite an all-day search, his body was never found.
Cold and exposure on land can also be dangerous, so be sure you’re properly dressed before leaving the ship. The infamous windchill factor measures the intensifying effect of moving air upon heat loss. Since Antarctica is the windiest continent on earth, you should have a windproof (and waterproof) outer garment. Remember that the intense rays of the sun more easily penetrate the ozone-depleted Antarctic atmosphere, so you should wear sunscreen and sunglasses even on overcast days.
One often-overlooked aspect of shipboard travel is the common feeling of claustrophobia that comes from being stuck in close quarters with people you can’t escape. To keep this in perspective, remind yourself that it will all be over with shortly – and consider that your shipmates just might feel the same way about you. Showing a little consideration goes a long way in matters of snoring (bring earplugs for unsuspecting cabinmates), smoking (most tour operators have specific rules about it) and personal hygiene (fastidiousness in this matter is always appreciated).
Deep vein thrombosis
Blood clots may form in the legs (deep vein thrombosis) during plane flights, chiefly because of prolonged immobility. Although most clots are reabsorbed uneventfully, some may break off and travel to the lungs, where they could cause life-threatening complications. The chief symptom is swelling or pain of the foot, ankle, or calf, usually but not always on just one side. When a blood clot travels to the lungs, it may cause chest pain and difficulty breathing. Anyone with these symptoms should seek medical attention immediately.
To prevent deep vein thrombosis, walk about the cabin, contract the leg muscles while sitting, drink plenty of fluids, and avoid alcohol and tobacco.
To avoid jet lag drink plenty of fluids (nonalcoholic) and eat light meals. Upon arrival, get exposure to natural sunlight and readjust your schedule (for meals, sleep etc) as soon as possible.
Availability & cost of health care
There are no public hospitals, pharmacies, or doctor’s offices in Antarctica. Ships and research bases have infirmaries, but with usually just a single doctor or nurse, and limited equipment. A life-threatening medical problem will require evacuation to a country with advanced medical care. Since this may cost tens of thousands of dollars, be sure you have insurance to cover this before you depart. You can find a list of medical evacuation and travel insurance companies on the website of the US State Department (www.travel. state.gov).
Although shore visits are not conducted in severe weather, and most are not long enough to induce hypothermia, prolonged cold exposure may lead to either frostbite or hypothermia.
Frostbite is most likely to occur in the nose, cheeks, chin, fingers, and toes. The first sign is numbness and redness, followed by the development of a waxy, white or yellow plaque. Severe frostbite may lead to blisters, gangrene and loss of the affected body part.
Hypothermia occurs when the body loses heat faster than it can produce it, and the core temperature falls. It is surprisingly easy, even if the air temperature is above freezing, to progress from very cold to dangerously cold due to a combination of wind, wet clothing, fatigue and hunger. Dress in layers; silk, wool and some of the new artificial fibers are all good insulating materials. Keeping dry is critical, so a strong, waterproof outer layer is essential. A hat is very important, as much heat is lost through the head.
Hypothermia symptoms include exhaustion, numb skin (particularly in fingers and toes), shivering, slurred speech, irrational or violent behavior, lethargy, stumbling, dizzy spells, muscle cramps and violent bursts of energy. Sufferers who become irrational may claim that they feel warm and try to undress. During periods of prolonged cold exposure, watch your companions closely for the ‘umbles’ – stumbles, mumbles, fumbles and grumbles – important signs of impending hypothermia.
To treat hypothermia, get the patient out of the wind and rain, remove any wet clothing and replace it with dry items. Give the patient hot liquids – not alcohol – and some high-calorie, easily digestible food. This should be enough to treat the early stages of hypothermia, but if it has gone further, consult the ship’s doctor. If possible, place the sufferer in a warm (not hot) shower.
Antarctica’s extremely dry environment can lead to dehydration, so it’s wise to drink at least 4L of water a day. Signs of dehydration include dark yellow urine and/or fatigue. Coffee and tea are diuretics, thus counterproductive when trying to combat dehydration.
Antarctica’s reflected sunlight produces powerful glare. Sunglasses are essential. Buy ultraviolet-filtering glasses and not untreated dark lenses, which cause your pupils to dilate while offering no protection from UV.
Even on overcast days, it’s easy to get sunburned quickly, since the sun reflects off snow, ice and the sea. Use sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher. Calamine lotion relieves mild sunburn.
There are no special health risks for pregnant women in Antarctica, if normal precautions are observed.
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