Medical Risks In Adventure Travel - My Family Travels

Medical practitioners caution parents to watch out for the really common things that most often go wrong.

Adventure travel is growing substantially, and the family travel sector of this market is on the rise, according to the Seattle-based Adventure Travel Trade Assocation (ATTA). In their report for the 2007 fiscal year, ATTA surveyed 128 internationally owned and operated Adventure Tour companies. When asked how they would describe their growth from the year 2006 to 2007, 23% of the tour operators responded that that they had a growth of more than 20%. Shannon Stowell, the President of ATTA, elaborated, “Most of these tour operators have experienced a solid percentage of growth.” Additionally, there are also been an increase in children and multi-generational family groups participating in organized hiking, biking, rafting and other adventure trips.

Some Facts about Adventure & Risk

Adventure travel is not — statistically — as dangerous or risky as the brochures lead you to believe. According to Dr. Susan Kuhn of the University of Calgary, Canada, 34% of all deaths are caused by unintentional injury, and 80% of these are caused by motor vehicle accidents. When it comes to the tragedy of fatal motor vehicle accidents, 25% of the victims are kids 0-17 years.

In contrast, a recent study of adventure travel participants in New Zealand revealed an injury rate of 74 in 100,000 with no fatalities. Dr. Kuhn notes, however, that the injury rate for young men 10 to 19-years was just as high as the rate in adult men ages 20 to 29-years. She adds, “When considering adventure travel, children have their own risks and their own needs that should be discussed with parents and attended to.”

Common Risks Associated with Outdoors Adventures

Let’s look at the most common maladies associated with participation in adventure travel and how the physical, developmental and behavioral differences between age groups are revealed. Acute Mountain Sickness can strike any age but because children’s symptoms can be tough to assess, many physicians recommend that children be limited to lower altitudes.

Similarly, because of their limited capacity for reasoning, kids may expose themselves to unrecognized risks. A recent survey of Israeli asthma sufferers, for example, revealed that 37% of the children studied had worse episodes of asthma while traveling than at home.

Children, who have a proportionally larger body surface area to weight than adults, are more susceptible to changes in temperature. Hypothermia is a challenge for all wintersports enthusiasts but children have less body fat, so it is more difficult for them to adjust to cold weather. With a lesser sweating capacity, they can also overheat quickly and succumb to heatstroke.

A more likely mishap may occur with specialty adventure equipment, which is often poorly fitted on children whose heads are larger and torsos smaller than their older adventuring guardians. Dr. Kuhn suggests that because of adventure travel’s popularity, it may be marketed too widely and unwisely. She suggests protective measures to be implemented include greater regulation of the specific activity or industry, monitoring safety standards and training individual tour operators, and ensuring preparation of individual participants. For now, she warns cautious parents to assume that any adventure trip open to “all ages” really means appropriate for children 13 years and older.

Foreign travel requiring vaccines should raise another red flag. Families on rushed schedules may receive vaccines and boosters at too close intervals, lessening their efficacy. When it comes to prophylactics for malaria and other diseases endemic to developing countries, doctors may differ on the appropriateness or dosage of new medications for certain age groups.

As in many aspects of family travel, too much or too little preparation can leave family members at risk.

Dr. Kuhn’s Checklist for Adventure Travel

These are questions parents should ask and things they should do before they put themselves and their children at needless risk.

1. Who is the trip really for?
2. What are the reasons for going?
3. Are the inherent risks worth taking?
4. What can we do to prepare for and minimize the risks?
5. Can we gain pre-trip experience by practicing the activity beforehand?
6. Do we understand the safety issues and are we prepared for them?
7. Make sure the pace of the trip is appropriate for all ages in the family.
8. Establish comprehensive health insurance and medical evacuation coverage.
9. Plan carefully to optimize the pre-trip preparation.
10. Develop and pack a comprehensive medical kit.

Original excerpts from the seminar “Big Challenges, Little Backpacks” presented at the 2003 International Society of Travel Medicine Conference in New York City; updated 2008.

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