Top 10 tropical diseases to watch out for

So you're going somewhere tropical for your next holiday... say Thailand, Costa Rica, Indonesia? You've heard how beautiful the resort is, how magical the people are and how delicious the food is. You want to go and get your hands dirty, but you're terrified of catching what's-it-called, the local disease caused by something or other.

To ease your travel troubles, we've complied a list of the world's 10 most common tropical diseases to be aware of. Before heading off on your adventure, you'll know what vaccines to get, how long before embarking you need to have them and where to be on the lookout.


Malaria is something to watch out for in tropical climates like Indonesia and Mexico, as well as most of Sub Saharan Africa. If you're going on Safari in Kenya or hiking in Bali, for example, you'll need to prepare yourself. It is a deadly disease that shouldn't be taken lightly, but don't fret - with the right course of action, it's easily avoided.

The best place to start is by making enquiries about the place you are going. If malaria is a risk factor, the local tourism board, your travel agent or a reliable website will tell you. Once you've established this, speak to your GP about medication. There are no vaccines for the disease, but you'll find a large range of tablets that reduce the risk by a considerable percentage. Over the years there has been major advances in malaria research. The more recent medication, like Malarone, has no side effects and lasts for up to 28 days.

Because malaria is transmitted by infected mosquitoes, there are a number of ways to be proactive about avoiding it. On top if your medication you should:

  • Wear insect repellent - especially at night
  • Sleep under a mosquito net
  • Spray insecticides in your bedroom
Malaria-Infected MosquitoesMalaria-infected mosquitoes


Although tuberculosis, or TB, is found across the world, this lung disease is not highly contagious. If you've got a healthy immune system and you've been vaccinated, you should be fine.

However, it becomes a risk for travellers entering smaller communities, where outbreaks are common. The disease is spread by close contact with infected persons and unpasteurised milk, so the close-quarter living settlements found in India, China and most of Africa have made these areas high risk destinations. Foreign aid workers, especially those working in a medical environment, or backpackers staying in community housing, need to take precautions.

The Baceille-Calmette-Guerin, or BCG vaccination, is given to most children in the UK at an early-schooling age. The vaccine lasts for up to ten years. If it's been close to that long, or you can't remember the exact date since your last jabs, seeing a travel doctor before going abroad is highly recommended.

Lung x-rayLung x-ray

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a relatively low risk liver disease found in most parts of the world, with the exception of Western Europe (except Portugal), Australasia and North America. A one-off vaccination against it offers protection for up to a year, while a repeat jab provides up to 25 years of immunity. If you know you are going to a high risk area, make enquiries about the local water supply. The disease is transferred by drinking contaminated water, so as long as you're drinking safe or bottled water, you won't be at risk.

Hepatitis A injectionHepatitis A injection

Typhoid Fever

The best way to avoid getting typhoid fever is to monitor your food and water supply. Making sure that what you are eating and drinking comes from a clean source is the most effective way of preventing typhoid. The disease is most commonly spread by human waste infecting a water supply. Rural areas of developing countries like Papua New Guinea, Mauritania and Madagascar, to name a few, are higher risk locations.

Two typhoid vaccines are available: an injection and a pill form. The jab lasts for up to three years, while the pill form will last one. Both are highly effective against the disease. Even if you've had the vaccine, you should always make sure your meals are cooked properly and your water is boiled for at least a minute before drinking.

Typhoid is spread through food and waterTyphoid is spread through food and water


There are two kinds of Meningitis to be aware of: viral and bacterial. Viral meningitis is low risk and can be cured with over-the-counter medicine, much like the flu virus. Bacterial meningitis is extremely dangerous, and needs to be treated straight away by doctors with strong antibiotics. Early symptoms include nausea, neck ache, vomiting and a rash that develops suddenly. The symptoms advance very quickly into a life threatening coma, which is why getting treated early is so important.

Vaccinations for certain meningitis strains are available and will be effective in preventing several types. The best way to avoid getting it is to steer clear of crowded places in areas known for meningitis outbreaks as it is only spread by close contact with infected people. The main risk area is in Africa's meningitis belt, from Senegal to Ethiopia.

Meningitis FeverA high temperature is a symptom of Meningitis


If you're going to be handling or spending time around animals that could be potentially rabid, it's absolutely essential to be vaccinated for rabies - no matter where in the world you're going.

This fatal neurological disease is spread by animals carrying the virus in their saliva. Even if you have been vaccinated, if you are bitten by a rabid dog, cat, raccoon etc. you will need to have repeat courses immediately after scrubbing your wound thoroughly and cleaning it with alcohol.

Animals can carry RabiesDon't take animal bites lightly


Cholera is a water-born disease that thrives in areas where basic sanitation levels are not up to scratch. Areas struck by natural disasters, political wars, urban slums and make-shift camps for refugees are stereotypical examples of where to look out for it.

Travellers going abroad as aid workers, or just looking for an authentic experience in a developing country, need to be aware of a cholera risk. You should be able to find out via the country's tourism website, or by making enquiries with your local travel agents, what the risk factors are.

An oral vaccine is available to protect you for up to two years, which also covers you against traveller's diarrhea and other stomach bugs.

Urban SlumCholera is a water-born disease


Schistosomiasis is more commonly known as bilharzia. This disease is caused by the Schistosoma worm, a parasite which lives in bodies of water like lakes, rivers, waterfalls and dams.The good news is it's not very common, and that areas affected by it normally offer some kind of warning.

The highest risk areas include Africa, parts of the Caribbean, South East Asia and the Middle East. It's essential to be aware of the disease - find out if your water supply has ever been infected if you aren't sure. It is easily curable, but as easily prevented. The following preventative measures will go a long way to ensuring you don't contact Bilharzia:

  • Ask your travel agent/ tourist information board/ local folk if the water source is safe
  • Boil your drinking water first
  • Drink bottled water if you can
  • Towel off properly after swimming
Schistosomiasis can cause a rashA mild Schistosomiasis rash

Japanese B Encephalitis

Japanese B encephalitis is found in the south east parts of Asia. It is transmitted by mosquitoes, which breed in rice fields, in much the same way as malaria. For travellers wanting to explore the rural parts of Japan, its always best to first check with the local tourist board how serious the risk is. Although encephalitis is quite rare, the disease is severe if you are infected. A new vaccine Ixiaro is available in the UK, which offers up to two years immunity.

Mosquitoes carrying Japanese B Encephalitis breed in rice paddiesMosquitoes carrying Japanese B Encephalitis breed in rice paddies


Polio vaccine is included in almost every childhood vaccination program around the world, so there should be no risk of contracting it in high risk zones. The only places where it is still common include Nigeria, and parts of India. If you're unsure about whether or not you've been for the correct jabs, consult your GP before going to any of those destinations.

Keep a record of your vaccinationsKeep a record of your vaccinations