About infectious diseases
New diseases can appear and spread suddenly. Read and subscribe to the travel advice for your destination before you depart to ensure you have the latest information.
Water-borne, food-borne, parasitic and other infectious diseases (including cholera, hepatitis, tuberculosis, typhoid and rabies) are common around the world, with serious outbreaks occurring from time to time. Vaccinations are available for the prevention of some infectious diseases. Ensure you discuss potential vaccinations with your GP before you travel.
More information: Health Checks and Vaccinations
Bear in mind that standards of food handling and preparation may be different in some countries from those in Australia. Illness caused by poor food handling is common in some locations, even in expensive hotels.
Water-borne diseases (including cholera, typhoid, leptospirosis and schistosomiasis) are common in many countries. Some can be caught from drinking contaminated water or food and others from direct contact with contaminated water.
- In rural areas and countries where water-borne diseases are common, boil or treat all drinking water or drink bottled water.
- Avoid ice cubes.
- Avoid uncooked and undercooked food.
- Avoid contact with water or soil that may be contaminated with animal urine.
- Cover any cuts or abrasions, and wear waterproof protective clothing, especially footwear, if in contact with water that might be contaminated, including unchlorinated fresh water, such as lakes and streams.
- In some countries, avoid swimming or wading in unchlorinated fresh water.
Mosquito-borne and other insect-borne diseases
Yellow fever: If you're travelling to parts of Africa, South or Central America or the Caribbean you may be exposed to yellow fever. Yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitos. It is a serious and potentially fatal disease which is preventable by vaccination. We recommend that you check the yellow fever entry requirements for all countries you intend to enter or transit by contacting their embassy or consulate. Some airlines may require passengers to present a valid yellow fever vaccination certificate before being allowed to board flights out of the country.
If you have visited countries where yellow fever is endemic in the days before you return to Australia, you will be asked to present a valid yellow fever vaccination certificate upon entry into Australia. For more information about yellow fever, including Australian re-entry requirements, see the Department of Health website.
Zika virus: A number of countries in South and Central America, the Caribbean, Africa and the Pacific are experiencing ongoing transmission of the mosquito-borne Zika virus. Transmission mainly occurs through the bite of some species of Aedes mosquito, particularly Aedes aegypti. These mosquitoes bite in the day, often around dawn and dusk. Sexual transmission of the virus is also possible. The infection often occurs without symptoms and only one in five people who get it will feel sick, usually for a few days. Illness from Zika does not usually require hospitalisation, but in some cases can cause fever, rash, severe headache, joint pain, and muscle or bone pain. There are no vaccines. All travellers are urged to protect themselves by taking measures to prevent mosquito bites. There is scientific consensus that Zika virus is a cause of microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome. Given the risk to unborn babies, pregnant women (or women trying to become pregnant) should consider postponing travel to countries where Zika is common or talk to their doctor about implications.
There are a number of other mosquito-borne diseases that can affect travellers visiting warm climates, including southern Europe and North America. Diseases include malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya, West Nile virus and Japanese encephalitis. Also ticks, sandflies and other insects spread other diseases in some countries. Take measures to avoid insect bites, including ensuring your accommodation is mosquito proof; using an appropriate strong insect repellent and wearing long, loose fitting, light coloured clothing.
Medication to prevent malaria may be recommended for some high-risk destinations. Our country-specific travel advice indicates where malaria is a risk. In addition to taking precautions against mosquito bites, you should also consult a doctor about the need for malaria medication.
HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases
When travelling you should always exercise appropriate precautions when engaging in activities that expose you to bodily fluids such as unprotected sex, tattoos, piercings, injecting drug use, working in a health care facility or delivering first aid. The level of HIV/AIDS infection and other sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea, is very high in many countries.
Victims of violent crime, especially rape, are strongly encouraged to seek immediate medical assistance. There are medications available to help decrease the chance of becoming infected with HIV in these circumstances. For more information on the spread of HIV/AIDS, see the World Health Organization website.
Influenza is a viral infection that affects mainly the nose, throat, airways and, occasionally, lungs. The virus is transmitted easily from person to person when infected people cough or sneeze. Annual epidemics of influenza usually occur during the winter months in temperate regions, but can occur year-round. See the Department of Health Influenza website for more information.
Avian influenza is primarily a disease of birds and rarely causes infections in humans and other mammals. There is no ongoing spread of avian influenza from person to person.
The risk of human infections is low. For more information on avian influenza see the websites of the Australian Department of Health and the World Health Organization.
Australians travelling to areas affected by avian influenza can reduce their risk of infection by:
- avoiding situations where they may come into contact with infected birds, including live bird markets
- ensuring all uncooked poultry and eggs are handled hygienically with careful attention to hand washing after handling
- ensuring all poultry and eggs are cooked thoroughly before eating (proper cooking destroys the virus in poultry and eggs)
See a doctor promptly if you become sick with fever, coughing, or difficulty breathing during or after travel to a country affected by avian influenza.
H1N1 (swine flu)
Swine influenza viruses are common among pig populations globally and do not usually infect humans. Most human infections with swine influenza viruses are mild, with the virus not spreading further to other people. The (H1N1) 2009 virus that caused the global pandemic in 2009-2010 was thought to have originated in pigs and is an example of a swine-origin virus that was able to spread among people and cause disease. Since 2010, the H1N1 virus strain has been incorporated in the annual seasonal influenza vaccine around the world.
Rabies is present in many countries worldwide. Rabies is a fatal viral disease that is almost always spread by an animal bite, but can also be contracted through a scratch or when an animal's saliva gets directly into the eyes, nose, mouth, or broken skin. If bitten, scratched or exposed to the saliva of an animal that may carry rabies you should immediately use soap and water to wash the wound thoroughly for at least 10 minutes and seek urgent medical attention. It is usually impossible to tell if an animal is infected with rabies or not, so you should seek advice for all bites or other exposures.
You can minimise the risk of exposure by avoiding contact with wild and domestic animals, such as dogs, monkeys, bats and other mammals. Travellers should not feed or pat monkeys, even in places where tourists may be encouraged to do so. Be aware that monkeys may bite or scratch you without warning to look for food.
Roughly 97% of confirmed human rabies cases worldwide are caused by contact with infected dogs. However, in recent years an increasing number of Australians returning from overseas have required rabies treatment following bites and scratches from monkeys, particularly following travel to Bali and Thailand.
The Rabies vaccine is effective if given shortly after an exposure (bite, or scratch) in combination with Rabies immunoglobulin. The availability of rabies treatment (vaccine and immunoglobulin) may be limited in some locations overseas. You may need to return to Australia or travel to a third country to obtain prompt treatment. If you are planning to stay in a location with high levels of rabies for a prolonged period or to work with animals, you should consult your doctor or travel clinic about obtaining a pre-exposure rabies vaccination. For further information on rabies see the World Health Organization website.
Ebola virus disease
Infection with Ebola virus disease (EVD) is frequently fatal. The symptoms of EVD are severe and can include high fever, muscle pain and weakness, headache and sore throat, followed by vomiting, diarrhoea and in some cases, internal and external bleeding. There is currently no available vaccine to prevent Ebola although there are efforts to develop one. There is no proven safe and effective treatment for EVD, however prompt and high-quality supportive care can be life-saving.
EVD is spread through direct contact with broken skin or mucous membranes with the body fluids of an infected person, including blood, faeces and sweat. Transmission can also occur through direct contact with the body or bodily fluids of a deceased EVD patient. There is a risk of sexual transmission of Ebola virus from survivors for an unknown period after recovery, and should be considered to continue indefinitely until more is known.
Australians considering travel to a country where EVD is present should maintain strict standards of hygiene and avoid all direct contact with patients with EVD or unknown illnesses, including avoiding unprotected sexual contact with survivors. Avoid contact with any objects that could have been contaminated with the body fluids of someone with EVD. Avoid contact with wild animals and do not eat or handle raw or undercooked animal products, such as blood and meat. Know the symptoms of EVD and see a healthcare provider immediately if you feel unwell, or if you develop any EVD symptoms.
For more information about Ebola, see the websites of the Australian Department of Health and the World Health Organization.
Middle East respiratory syndrome
Cases of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) have been reported in several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Lebanon and the Republic of Korea.
MERS can cause a rapid onset of severe respiratory illness with a fatality rate of around 36%. There is no vaccine. Symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. Some patients have reported a variety of other symptoms, including muscle pain, diarrhoea, vomiting and nausea. Some patients have mild symptoms or no symptoms. Severe disease occurs more frequently in people with underlying conditions that may make them more susceptible to infection (including diabetes, kidney disease, hypertension, asthma and lung diseases, cancer, cardiovascular disease).
Camels are suspected to be the source of infection for sporadic cases, but the exact routes of direct or indirect exposure remain unknown. Person-to-person spread can occur, particularly in healthcare settings where outbreaks of the disease have been reported.
The WHO advises that people at potentially higher risk of severe illness should take appropriate precautions when visiting farms, barn areas or market environments where camels are present in MERS-affected countries. This might include avoiding contact with camels, good hand hygiene, and avoiding drinking raw milk or eating food that may be contaminated with animal secretions or products unless they are properly washed, peeled or cooked.
Travellers should practise good hygiene measures, such as regular hand washing before and after touching animals, avoiding contact with sick animals, and following food hygiene practices in MERS-affected countries. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
Seek immediate medical attention if you feel unwell with symptoms similar to MERS infection while travelling or on your return to Australia. Be sure to tell your healthcare provider that you have travelled to a region where MERS is known to occur. Avoid close contact with people who are ill with these symptoms.
For more information about MERS, see the websites of the Department of Health and the World Health Organization.