GeoSentinel: Global Illness Surveillance | My Family Travels
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International health organizations are using new tools and technology to keep travelers and those who stay home free of illness.

As all travelers know, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and several governmental and regional medical authorities were thrust into the spotlight during the Spring 2003 SARS epidemic.

Working together, they isolated and examined carriers and patients, classified symptoms, investigated contaminated sites, determined causes, halted the spread, and protected the general population — a big task to accomplish in under four months. The depth and accuracy of their knowledge will be tested each winter from now on as "disease season" rolls around again.

Many travelers may be unaware that new tools available to these multi-national health organizations are also making the world a safer place to roam. The International Society of Travel Medicine, the largest organization of travel medicine professionals with more than 2,500 members in 75 countries, supports one such innovation, GeoSentinel.

GeoSentinel— a Global Surveillance Network— was launched in 1995 to chart the spread of infectious diseases (it now tracks 60 diseases year-round) and create an early warning system for them. GeoSentinel operates from 41 ISTM-affiliated clinics around the world whose doctors have been monitoring patients since 1996. Containing over 97,000 patient records of travelers from every country of the world to almost every other country during this period has enabled GeoSentinel to build a database of diseases that are carried from one place to another.

As an example, past clinical studies done by GeoSentinel members indicating that 22.6% of all travelers were at risk of contracting some illness and that 13% of travelers to Asia were returning with a respiratory illness were critical in determining the severity of the SARS outbreaks, which turned out to be just a more severe type of respiratory illness. Studies like this have led physicians around the world to recommend the flu vaccine to travelers, particularly those traveling in winter or for longer than 30 days.

Of interest to families, further study showed that amongst young travelers, upper respiratory illnesses were the most common, with ear or sinus infections and sore throats the most typical of these. Surprisingly, travel in spring, fall, or winter was equally like to result in illness, summer less so.

With a standard incubation period for respiratory illness of seven to 10 days, GeoSentinel also found no evidence that travelers were contagious to others during that period. They concluded that travel was often the culprit behind respiratory illnesses not because of air travel conditions, altitude change, or poor air circulation, but rather because travelers tended to go in groups, stay in hotels or places of close proximity to others, and remain exposed for long periods to other disease carriers.

Travel Medicine Specialists agree that the two most important preventive measures they can share with the public are these:

  • * Practice good hand washing
  • * Get a seasonal flu vaccine

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