Ecuador Travel Health

[pl_alertbox type=”info” closable=”yes”] If you are looking for information on Costa Rica travel health, please note that we provide specific information for our Costa Rica participants in our Program Preparation Guide. We’ve compiled this additional information about Ecuador travel health because of the additional nuances associated with our Ecuador itineraries, whereas the situation in Costa Rica is more straightforward by comparison. [/pl_alertbox]

Ecuador is an “exotic” country in the minds of many. To the uninitiated, we may imagine dangerous creatures and debilitating diseases lurking around every corner. However, the vast majority of travelers, even to remote, exposed. or “high-risk” regions of Ecuador, rarely encounter any health issues excepting the inevitable minor stomach ailments associated with eating new foods.

In this blog post, I’ll cover some of the common issues to consider prior to traveling with us on a Sustainable Summer program in Ecuador.

Malaria and Other Mosquito-borne Diseases

There are mosquitoes in lower elevation regions of Ecuador, including the coast and Amazon jungle. I will address preventative measures for these regions separately since they have very different seasons and risk factors.

For participants traveling to Ecuador’s coast (our Seeds of Change program), we will be visiting the coast region during the dry reason and mosquitoes carrying malaria are not able to survive. It may not be advisable to take anti-malaria pills for this reason, although you should seek medical advice from your primary care physician or a travel medicine specialist prior to the program. For participants in either of our Amazon programs, the lower elevations of the Amazon basin are technically a malaria risk zone according to the Center for Disease Control. However, many travelers and all locals prefer preventative measures to prescription prophylactics, although you should seek medical advice from your primary care physician or a travel medicine specialist prior to the program. It is worth noting that there are certain regions of the Ecuadorian Amazon that have much higher incidences of malaria than others, although this may not be reflected in the reporting by health authorities like the CDC.  Anecdotally, the regions of Napo Province we visit on our Sustaining the Amazon program have very low reports of malaria incidence. For participants on our Into Yasuni program, our partner, Shiripuno, which runs the eco-lodge and research center we visit in the Yasuni biosphere, recommends insect repellant over anti-malarial prophylaxis. We are not aware of any reports of tropical diseases contracted by foreign visitors to this area of the rainforest.

The subject of anti-malarials and other medications is complex and highly personal. We can only provide you with information about what our trip leaders do and emphatically recommend that you speak with your physician about the circumstances. My personal preference and the preference of most experienced travelers to Ecuador is to forgo anti-malarials, but that may not be the right choice for you. In short, the risk of contracting malaria on our program is quite low, but it’s technically there. Malaria medication may bring you peace of mind, but know that there are downsides to using the medication, so be sure you and your physician or travel medicine specialist have a frank conversation about the circumstances.

In lower-elevation regions of Ecuador there is also a slight risk of contracting Dengue Fever from a mosquito (the non-hemorrhagic type, which is not life threatening), however the likelihood is extremely low and can be mitigated by covering up and using bug repellent. Unlike malaria, there are no preventative drugs that can be taken to protect against Dengue.

In the extremely unlikely event that you contract malaria or Dengue while traveling, you will most likely not display symptoms until you return home due to the incubation period of both diseases (4-7 days or longer for Dengue and 7-9 days and possibly as much as a year for malaria). It will be unpleasant, but patients in otherwise good health that receive treatment rarely have issues greater than a severe and prolonged fever. Any participant that displays symptoms while in Ecuador will be immediately transported to a medical facility to examination. We are rarely more than an hour from appropriate facilities and excellent health care is available in Quito’s private hospitals, which are never more than a half a day’s drive or flight from any of our locations during the program.

These are serious diseases, and we treat them seriously by practicing appropriate preventative measure while traveling, but as a resident of the northeastern US, I personally find Lyme’s disease far more scary than either Dengue or malaria simply because it’s so much harder to prevent and has permanent effects.

Animal Bites and Scratches

One of the most exciting parts about traveling to Ecuador is the exotic wildlife. In past trips I’ve seen monkeys, bats, tortoises, sloths, lemurs, and more birds than I could count in a lifetime, all in the wild. There are probably dozens of other animals I’ve seen but been unable to identify: A rustle of the jungle foliage, a glimpse of something out of the corner of the eye, but alas, no sign of anything except the gentle sway of some branches. This is a routine event in Ecuador.

I’ve never seen a snake. Although I’m sure they’re there, they keep to themselves. Same goes for spiders. I’ve seen some big ones here and there, but they leave you alone. Many people fear snake and spider bites, but the chances of seeing one, let along getting bit by one, are simply very, very low. Simple measures like wearing shoes when outside, hiking in a group, and avoiding leaning against trees in the jungle are good preventative tactics.

The bigger risk is a dog bite. There are stray dogs in just about every town or village. You encounter them on a regular basis. Unless provoked, they don’t pose much of a threat, so our hard and fast rule is to let sleeping dogs lie! Never approach a dog, even one that looks clean or friendly, under any circumstances. Monkeys are also known to bite on occasion. They look cute and playful, and usually are friendly, but it’s not worth getting bit so we don’t let our students play with monkeys. Sorry. It’s still fun to observe them playing. Just keep your hands on cameras, hats, and other “toys” since monkeys are known to sneak up and “steal” them from unsuspecting watchers.

Food and Water

If you don’t get some mild stomach ailments while visiting Ecuador, consider yourself lucky. We will be eating new and different foods that are delicious, but sometimes necessitate a day or two of adjustment for our unaccustomed digestive tracts. Many travelers I know swear that ingesting an uncooked clove of garlic along with a glass of water before breakfast during the first couple days of travel is a surefire way to get your tummy in line. Once adjusted, avoiding street food and not drinking tap water will keep your digestive system functioning in top performance for the duration of the trip. Purified water is available in abundance every places we stay. We’ll also provide a rundown of the “what to eat/what not to eat” situation in every locale that we visit. Generally speaking, we don’t necessarily adhere to the common traveler maxim of not eating raw, unpeeled vegetables and fruits since we primarily stay in places where we know exactly how the food is prepared, however there are certain times and places where this is decidedly good advice. We recommend that all students bring a mild, over-the-counter anti-diarrheal such as Imodium to help counter an upset stomach. Your healthcare professional may also write a Cipro prescription for particularly aggressive stomach ailments, although we carry some in our first aid supplies for such contingencies as well. Cipro should be reserved for truly severe symptoms.

Environmental Factors

When we arrive in Quito, we will be at over 9000 feet of elevation, the second highest of any capital city in the world (after La Paz, Bolivia). Although medical complications due to altitude are rare at this elevation, it’s enough to cause some mild breathlessness and fatigue. We’ll only be in Quito for a short time and will then descend to lower elevations where altitude sickness is not possible.

For participants on our Seeds of Change program, we will be spending a few days in Ecuador’s highlands region at over 12,000 feet of elevation. We will be hiking and altitude sickness is a possibility. Fortunately, we will spend time acclimatizing and it’s unlikely that we will have any issues. The only cure for altitude sickness is rest and descent to a lower elevation.

The steady rays of the equatorial sun are a constant during our trip. High SPF sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, and lots of water intake are necessary preventative measures. We’ll include a detailed list of recommendations to protect against the elements in our packing list.

What You Should Do

Seek medical advice from your primary care physician or a travel medicine specialist at least 8 weeks prior to the program. Make sure you are explicit about the exact trip itinerary. A good travel medicine specialist will discuss an appropriate plan of action customized to your medical history and risk factors, which may include a vaccination schedule and both medical and non-medical prophylactic measures. If you live in the New York metropolitan region, we can recommend a travel medical specialist. You can also reference the CDC (Center for Disease Control) website for a list of travel medical clinics.

Most people traveling to Ecuador will already have received many of the recommended vaccinations. The likely additions to a traveler’s vaccination record, assuming no recent travel to other “tropical” destinations, are Typhoid and Hepatitis A and B. Yellow Fever will probably also be recommended for participants traveling to the Amazon region with us on either the Into Yasuni or Sustaining the Amazon programs. Please note, participants in Into Yasuni will be required to show proof of vaccination against Yellow Fever and Hepatitis A and B before entering the “Intangible Zone” that has been put in place to protect the indigenous Huaorani people. Technically, the government of Ecuador requires visitors to carry proof of a Yellow Fever vaccination when entering the country, although I’ve never heard of this requirement being enforced except as stated in the previous sentence.

For more information, see this New York Times article and the CDC page for Ecuador.

We will provide a complete list of recommended over-the-counter prescriptions and equipment to ensure a safe and healthy trip to Ecuador with Sustainable Summer in our suggested packing list. Please feel free to contact us with any questions. We’ve been traveling to Ecuador years and are happy to help!