Australia is a healthy country for travellers. Malaria and yellow fever are unknown, cholera and typhoid are unheard of, and animal diseases such as rabies and foot-and-mouth disease have yet to be recorded. The standard of hospitals and healthcare is high. Few travellers should experience anything worse than an upset stomach or a hangover.

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Before You Go

Pack medications in their original, clearly labelled, containers. A signed and dated letter from your physician describing your medical conditions and medications, including generic names, is also a good idea. If carrying syringes or needles, be sure to have a physician's letter documenting their medical necessity.

Health Insurance

Health insurance is essential for all travellers. You may prefer a policy that pays doctors or hospitals directly rather than requiring you to pay on the spot and claim later. If you have to claim later make sure you keep all documentation. Check that the policy covers ambulances and emergency medical evacuations by air.

Recommended Vaccinations

No particular vaccinations are needed, but the World Health Organization (www.who.int) recommends that all global travellers should be vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox and polio, as well as hepatitis B, regardless of their destination. While Australia has high levels of childhood vaccination coverage, outbreaks of these diseases do occur.

Proof of yellow-fever vaccination is required from travellers entering Australia within six days of having stayed overnight or longer in a yellow-fever-infected country. For a full list of these countries, see the websites of the World Health Organization (www.who.int/wer) or the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (www.cdc.gov/travel).

Medical Checklist

  • acetaminophen (paracetamol) or aspirin
  • adhesive or paper tape
  • antibacterial ointment in case of cuts or abrasions
  • antibiotics (also bring any prescriptions)
  • antidiarrhoeal drugs (eg loperamide)
  • antihistamines (for hayfever and allergic reactions)
  • anti-inflammatory drugs (eg ibuprofen)
  • bandages, gauze, gauze rolls
  • DEET-containing insect repellent for the skin
  • iodine tablets or water filter (for water purification)
  • oral rehydration salts
  • permethrin-containing insect spray for clothing, tents and bed nets
  • pocketknife
  • scissors, safety pins, tweezers
  • steroid cream or cortisone (for allergic rashes)
  • sunscreen
  • thermometer

Websites

There's a wealth of travel health advice on the internet: Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com) is a good place to start.

World Health Organization (www.who.int/ith) Publishes International Travel and Health, revised annually and available free online.

MD Travel Health (www.redplanet.travel/mdtravelhealth) Provides complete travel-health recommendations for every country, updated daily.

Government travel-health websites include:

Australia (www.smartraveller.gov.au)

Canada (www.hc-sc.gc.ca)

UK (www.nhs.uk/livewell/travelhealth)

USA (www.cdc.gov/travel)

In West Coast Australia

Availability & Cost of Health Care

Like the rest of Australia, Western Australia has an excellent healthcare system: a mixture of privately run medical clinics and hospitals alongside public hospitals funded by the Australian government. There are also excellent specialised public health facilities for women and children in major centres.

You'll find general practitioners (GPs) working in most WA towns who are available for prebooked appointments, and hospitals with emergency departments in major centres.

Australia’s Medicare system (www.medicareaustralia.gov.au) covers Australian residents for some healthcare costs and emergency care, with reciprocity for citizens of New Zealand, Belgium, UK, Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Italy, Malta, Norway, Slovenia and Ireland. Online, see www.humanservices.gov.au/individuals/services/medicare. But even if you're not covered by Medicare, a short consultation with a local GP will usually only set you back around $70.

Over-the-counter medications are widely available at pharmacies. These include painkillers, antihistamines for allergies and skin-care products.

Some medications readily available over the counter in other countries are only available in Australia by prescription. These include the oral contraceptive pill, some medications for asthma and all antibiotics. If you take medication on a regular basis, bring an adequate supply and ensure you know the generic name, as brand names may differ.

Environmental Hazards

Heat Exhaustion & Heatstroke

These are significant risks across WA. Heat exhaustion occurs when fluid intake does not keep up with fluid loss. Symptoms include dizziness, fainting, fatigue, nausea or vomiting. On observation, the skin is usually pale, cool and clammy. Treatment consists of rest in a cool, shady place and fluid replacement with water or diluted sports drinks.

Heatstroke is a severe form of heat illness that occurs after fluid depletion or extreme heat challenge from heavy exercise. This is a true medical emergency: heating of the brain leads to disorientation, hallucinations and seizures. Prevention is by maintaining an adequate fluid intake to ensure the continued passage of clear and copious urine, especially during physical exertion.

Hypothermia

During the winter months in the southern parts of Western Australia, hypothermia is a possible risk for bushwakers, surfers and bikers. Early signs include the inability to perform fine movements (such as doing up buttons), shivering and a bad case of the 'umbles' (fumbles, mumbles, grumbles, stumbles). The key elements of treatment include changing the environment to one where heat loss is minimised, changing out of any wet clothing, adding dry clothes with windproof and waterproof layers, adding insulation and providing fuel (water and carbohydrate) to allow shivering, which builds the internal temperature. In severe cases of hypothermia, shivering actually stops – this is a medical emergency requiring rapid evacuation in addition to the above measures.

Infectious Diseases

The chance of a traveller to WA encountering any of these diseases is low, but here are the fundamentals.

Bat Lyssavirus

This disease is related to rabies and some deaths have occurred after bites. The risk is greatest for animal handlers and vets. Rabies vaccine is effective, but the risk to travellers is very low.

Dengue Fever

Also known as 'breakbone fever', because of the severe muscular pains that accompany the fever, this viral disease is spread by a species of mosquito that feeds primarily during the day. Most people recover in a few days, but more severe forms of the disease can occur, particularly in residents who are exposed to another strain of the virus (there are four types) in a subsequent season.

Giardiasis

Giardiasis is widespread in the waterways around Australia. Drinking untreated water from streams and lakes is not recommended. Water filters, and boiling or treating water with iodine, are effective in preventing the disease. Symptoms consist of intermittent bad-smelling diarrhoea, abdominal bloating and wind. Effective treatment is available (tinidazole or metronidazole).

Meningococcal Disease

This disease occurs worldwide and is a risk with prolonged, dormitory-style accommodation. A vaccine exists for some types of this disease, namely meningococcal A, C, Y and W. No vaccine is presently available for the viral type of meningitis.

Ross River Fever

The Ross River virus is widespread throughout Australia and is spread by mosquitoes living in marshy areas. In addition to fever, the disease causes headache, joint and muscular pains and a rash, before resolving after five to seven days.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases

STDs occur at rates similar to those in most other Western countries. Always use a condom with any new sexual partner. Condoms are readily available in chemists and through vending machines in many public places, including toilets.

Viral Encephalitis

Also known as the Murray Valley encephalitis virus, this is spread by mosquitoes and is most common in northern Australia, especially during the wet season (November to April). This potentially serious disease is normally accompanied by headache, muscle pains and light sensitivity. Residual neurological damage can occur and no specific treatment is available. However, the risk to most travellers is low.

Tap Water

Tap water is mainly safe to drink in WA, but a few small towns do have bore water, which you need to sterilise before drinking. Ask if you're not sure.

To prevent diarrhoea, avoid drinking from streams, rivers and lakes, or purify water before drinking. The simplest way to do this is to boil it thoroughly. Consider purchasing a water filter; read the specifications first, so that you know exactly what it removes from the water and what it doesn't. Simple filtering will not remove all dangerous organisms, so if you cannot boil water it should be treated chemically. Chlorine tablets will kill many pathogens, but not some parasites, such as giardia. Iodine is more effective and is available in tablet form, but remember that too much iodine can be harmful.