Health & safety
Travellers are advised to seek medical advice about vaccinations. Specialised travel- medicine clinics are your best source of information. Most vaccines don’t produce immunity until at least two weeks after they’re given, so visit a doctor four to eight weeks before departure. Travellers should particularly consider immunisation against hepatitis A.
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. The World Health Organization (WHO; www.who.int/ith) publishes a superb book called International Travel & Health, which is revised annually and is available online at no cost. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC; www.cdc.gov) website also has good general information.
Seoul is a relatively safe city, except when it comes to traffic. Drivers tend to be impatient with kimchi-hot tempers, and most of them, including bus drivers, routinely go through red lights, so don’t be the first or last person to cross over any pedestrian crossing. Vehicles never stop at pedestrian crossings that are not protected by traffic lights so it’s better not to use them. Crossing any road except at traffic lights is not a sensible idea, and jaywalking is illegal. Also keep two eyes out for motorcyclists who routinely speed along pavements and across pedestrian crossings. A high proportion of road deaths (38%) are pedestrians, so take extra care when walking round Seoul.
Drunks in Seoul are better behaved than elsewhere so walking around at 3am shouldn’t pose a problem. The swaying packs of late-night revellers usually pose more of a threat to themselves than to other people. Of course there is always an exception, so arguing with a drunk should be avoided.
Visitors are often surprised to see police in full riot gear, carrying large shields and long batons, streaming out of blue police buses that have their windows covered in protective wire. Student, trade-union, anti-American, environmental and other protests do still occasionally turn violent, although this is much less common than it used to be. Needless to say, it is wise to keep well out of the way of any confrontations that may occur.
A problem throughout the country, this food- and water-borne virus infects the liver, causing jaundice (yellow skin and eyes), nausea and lethargy. There is no specific treatment for hepatitis A, you just need to allow time for the liver to heal. All travellers to Korea should be vaccinated against hepatitis A.
The only sexually transmitted disease that can be prevented by vaccination, hepatitis B is spread by body fluids, including sexual contact. Up to 10% of the population are carriers of hepatitis B, and usually are unaware of this. The long-term consequences can include liver cancer and cirrhosis.
HIV is also spread by body fluids. Avoid unsafe sex, sharing needles, invasive cosmetic procedures such as tattooing, and needles that have not been sterilised in a medical setting.
Influenza (flu) symptoms include high fever, muscle aches, runny nose, cough and sore throat. It can be very severe in people over the age of 65 or in those with underlying medical conditions such as heart disease or diabetes - vaccination is recommended for these individuals. There is no specific treatment, just rest and paracetamol.
Sexually transmitted diseases are common throughout the world and the most common include herpes, warts, syphilis, gonorrhoea and chlamydia. People carrying these diseases often have no signs of infection. Condoms will prevent gonorrhoea and chlamydia but not warts or herpes. If after a sexual encounter you develop any rash, lumps, discharge or pain when passing urine seek immediate medical attention. If you have been sexually active during your travels have an STD check on your return home.
Eating in restaurants is the biggest risk for contracting traveller’s diarrhoea. Eat only freshly cooked food and avoid shellfish and food that has been sitting around in buffets. Peel all fruit, cook vegetables, and eat in busy restaurants with a high turnover of customers. Avoid tap water - bottled or boiled water is safer to drink.
In most cases, traveller’s diarrhoea is caused by a bacteria (there are numerous potential culprits), and therefore responds promptly to treatment with antibiotics.
The treatment consists of staying well-hydrated, using rehydration solutions such as Gastrolyte. Antibiotics such as Norfloxacin, Ciprofloxacin or Azithromycin will kill the bacteria quickly.
Loperamide is just a ‘stopper’ and doesn’t get to the cause of the problem. Don’t take it if you have a fever, or blood in your stools. Seek medical attention quickly if you do not respond to an appropriate antibiotic.
Air pollution, particularly vehicle pollution, is an increasing problem in Seoul. If you have severe respiratory problems speak with your doctor before travelling to any heavily polluted urban centres. This pollution also causes minor respiratory problems such as sinusitis, dry throat and irritated eyes.
The most common parasite in Korea is Clonorchis. Infection occurs after eating infected freshwater fish - these may be raw, pickled, smoked or dried. Fortunately raw freshwater fish are rarely served in Seoul restaurants, so it is easy to avoid.
Light infections usually cause no symptoms, however heavy infections can cause liver problems. In some areas along rivers where raw river fish are commonly eaten, up to 20% of the local population are infected.
Seoul is a healthy city with standards of sanitation and medical care that are equal to those of other developed countries. Doctors are overworked but surgeons are particularly skilled. There are two health systems - one is Western-style and the other is based on traditional Asian principles and makes use of herbal remedies and acupuncture. Gyeongdong market is the place to go for traditional remedies.
It is customary for a relative or friend to stay with a patient who is in hospital, staying overnight in the case of a serious illness, to help with the nursing work. Nurses concentrate on the medicine and monitoring aspects, while relatives handle the small talk and wield the bedpans. Doctors have a heavier caseload than in the US and are not used to offering patients options or giving long explanations (even if their English is up to it). Hospitals normally require cash upfront and then you have to claim the money back from your insurance company.
Daewon Dental Clinic (Itaewonno; 794 0551; fax 794 0512; 10am-6.30pm Mon-Fri, 10am-2pm Sat; subway Line 6 to Itaewon, Exit 4) Kind and gentle Dr Park can take care of your dental problems - a check-up is W15,000, while a crown or front tooth root canal are both around W350,000.
International Clinic (Severance Hospital; 2228 5800, 24hr emergency only 012-263 6556; www.severance.or.kr ; Seongsanno; consultation W55,000; 8.30am-12.30pm & 1.30-5.30pm Mon-Fri, 8.30am-12.30pm Sat; subway Line 2 to Sinchon, Exit 3) A 700m walk from the subway, the impressive clinic has five English-speaking doctors led by jovial and experienced Dr Linton who speaks English and Korean. The hospital is ultra modern, a cross between a luxury hotel and a department store with water features, artworks, an impressive lobby, a food court and shops.
International Clinic (790 0857; www.internationalclinic.co.kr; Hannam Bldg, Itaewonno; 9am-noon & 2-6pm Mon-Fri, 9am-noon & 2-3pm Sat; subway Line 6 to Itaewon, Exit 2) Consultations cost W30,000 to W50,000, but a house call costs a whole lot more. Psychiatric services are also available.
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