Sports Medicine Congress

I am a diving coach and my divers travel regularly around the world. Should the athletes be immunized for travel-related illnesses?

I commend you on your foresight and planning!  You are absolutely right – you can minimize loss of training time from illness by instituting an effective immunization program.  Immunizations can protect from travel illness as well.

Immunizations are one of the 10 most important health measures ever discovered. While they have allowed us to virtually wipe some infections from the face of the planet, they remain important for several reasons. For some diseases, like tetanus, the organism lives in the environment and therefore will never completely be eliminated. As well, some immunizations such as the flu shot do not provide life long protection and therefore must be given repeatedly to prevent people from getting infected. To perform at their best competitive athletes usually try and do everything possible to stay healthy. Immunizations are an important part of this.

Every individual should ensure that they are protected from tetanus. The bacteria that causes tetanus is always present in soil and can cause fatal disease in unvaccinated people following cuts that are dirty or puncture wounds with rusty nails. The two most important ways to prevent tetanus infection are to immediately cleanse all cuts and to ensure that your tetanus vaccinations are up to date. Every child gets immunized against tetanus however booster doses must be given every ten years starting at age 15. The tetanus injection is very well tolerated but may cause a sore arm at the site of the injection and a mild fever for a day in some individuals.

Influenza or “the flu” is an illness that causes high fever, muscle aches and weakness, red eyes, runny nose and coughing. Influenza does not cause vomiting or diarrhea. Healthy people who get the real flu may be bed ridden for over a week and it may be several weeks before athletes can get back to their full training schedule. In order to protect yourself from the flu, you should get the flu shot each year. Several countries provide the flu shot free of charge to all individuals while others only target those people at highest risk. The flu shot cannot cause influenza itself but may cause a sore arm at the site of the injection for a few days.

Hepatitis A, B and C are viruses that cause infection of the liver. Hepatitis B and C are transmitted through blood and body fluids and Hepatitis A is usually transmitted through foods contaminated with dirty water or sewage. There are safe and effective vaccinations against Hepatitis A and B but not for C. All athletes traveling to areas of the world where clean water is not guaranteed or where Hepatitis A is very common should be vaccinated against this infection. All athletes should also be vaccinated against Hepatitis B no matter where they live. In some countries this is done at birth while in others in the early school years.