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11 Diseases to Be Aware of When You Travel to Latin America

Every country has their fair share of diseases, but Latina America has a unique set of conditions that make serious health problems a common experience.

Mainly, Latin America is comprised of tropical and subtropical areas that produce a breeding ground for wildlife, bacteria, and a slew of environmental changes. Mix that with extreme poverty and a lack of development, you’ll no doubt end up with communities of people that spread disease and other infections on a large scale. This harmful cycle has repeated itself for many generations, keeping several deadly diseases still alive as potential threats for those in the area. To make things worse, 2018 has shown a dramatic rise of migrants moving to Latin American countries, which poses an even larger need for substantial health care initiatives and other forms of humanitarian aid.

The problems may seem to difficult to solve, but being informed about any potential threats will keep you safe if and when you ever decide to visit the area. To make sure that you know what health risks you may be facing, here are are 11 diseases to be aware of when you travel to Latin America:

1. Malaria

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Latin America is full of mosquitoes, and naturally, they pose a huge threat to the population there by having the potential to spread malaria. Basically, malaria is a life-threatening disease that’s most commonly spread through Anopheles mosquito bites. These nasty creatures are infected with a Plasmodium parasite, and once you’re bitten, it’s transferred to your bloodstream where major issues will start to surface. 

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After the parasites get into your system, they will reside in the liver for a few days to mature. Once they’re ready, they move into the bloodstream and wreak havoc on your red blood cells. Basically, within a couple of days, the infected red blood cells will start to burst open, and this process continues in painful cycles that can result in a fever, vomiting, diarrhea, a coma, and even death. On a global scale, there were roughly 216 million cases of malaria in 2016 alone, and the U.S. experiences an estimated 1,700 cases each year. 

2. Dengue Fever

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Another mosquito-borne disease that plagues Latin America is called dengue fever. The sickness is caused by a strain of viruses (dengue viruses) that are related to the same ones that cause West Nile and yellow fever. Each year, estimates show that roughly 390 million people are infected with dengue fever around the world, and 96 million of those cases end up with severe illnesses. 

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The Aedes mosquito is responsible for infecting individuals with dengue fever. However, the mosquito initially picks up the infection from biting someone who already has the dengue virus in their blood. Once someone is bitten, the infection takes between 4 and 6 days to take hold and show signs of its presence. Symptoms may include a high fever, vomiting, a skin rash, and frequent bleeding from the nose and gums. Luckily, the sickness will only last for 10 days, and basic pain relievers and acetaminophen can be used to treat any discomfort. 

3. Chagas Disease

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We’ve moved from mosquitoes to parasites, and chagas disease is what’s sure to follow from the transition. Brought on by a parasite known as the trypanosoma cruzi, chagas disease is an inflammatory infection found in the stool of the reduviid bug. It is a common disease all throughout South America and its presence can cause serious health problems for those who are affected. 

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The reduviid bug initially picks up the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite after biting another infected animal. Then, as the bug eats and defecates, its feces contain the harmful parasite, which can be then enter your system through the eyes, mouth, cuts or scratches. Once the parasite enters your body, it begins to spread. The disease itself can be short-lived or long-lasting with a range of symptoms. In the acute phase of chagas disease, you may experience a fever, rash, eyelid swelling, headache or swollen glands. However, more severe cases may result in heart failure, cardiac arrest, or trouble swallowing and breathing from a swollen esophagus. Thankfully, these cases are somewhat rare since most travelers will stay in nice accommodations, rather than mud huts where the reduviid bug tends to live. 

4. Hookworms

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Hookworms may not be a disease itself, but the parasites can cause lots of issues to your health if they go untreated. Studies done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that hookworms affect up to 740 million people around the world, but it mainly targets tropical and subtropical locations with poor levels of hygiene and sanitation; Latin America serving as ground zero. 

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Hookworms are contracted from hookworm larvae that live within contaminated dirt. In areas where sanitation isn’t available, feces and other bodily fluids mix with the ground and become hotbeds for infections to anyone who crosses over it. Generally, a hookworm infection will start as a small rash wherever the larvae have penetrated the skin. Over time, the larvae works its way through the bloodstream and the infection will cause a variety of symptoms, such as nausea, bloody stools, abdominal pain, and fever. Hookworm can turn into anemia if the infection remains in the body for too long, and that can turn into other serious health problems. To get treated, a doctor will prescribe you with various medications to remove the parasite and boost your immune system. 

5. Ascariasis

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If hookworm wasn’t terrible enough, ascariasis (a species of roundworm) can be just as frightening to deal with. Rather than a parasite that enters through the skin, ascariasis is a type of parasitic worm that wreaks havoc on the small intestine. The sickness is common in areas with poor sanitation, exposing people to contaminated food and water. Unfortunately, Latin America is a prime location for roundworms to develop, although the disease is typically easier to manage. 

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Ascariasis can be passed from human contact or from interacting with contaminated soil or foods. Basically, the roundworm larvae, A. lumbricoides, lives in dirt that’s mixed with human excrement, and that matter gets inadvertently ingested. Once it’s in the system, it makes its way into the intestines and starts to reproduce. Over time, the disease can cause vomiting, irregular bowel movements, abdominal pain, and loss of appetite. The worms can be treated with certain medications, like albendazole and ivermectin, but serious cases will require surgery to free up any intestinal blockages that the worms may cause. 

6. Trichuriasis

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In fact, hookworms, ascariasis, and trichuriasis (whipworms) are all part of the same family of soil-transmitted parasites. Collectively, they make up a large chunk of the diseases found in Latin America since many inhabitants are forced to defecate outside. The result is an increased chance of contaminated soil where eggs from infected feces are passed onto others who come in contact with it through farming, by eating contaminated fruits or veggies, or without knowing. Between 600 and 800 million people around the globe have whipworm, and it’s also a common infection for animals to experience. 

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For those who do contract trichuriasis, the parasite affects the large intestine, but larvae from the whipworm will begin to grow and hatch in the small intestine first. Once the larvae matures, it makes its way into the large intestine where other eggs will eventually be laid and passed by the host. While all of this takes place, the body may undergo a variety of symptoms with different levels of severity. There may be vomiting, headaches, bloody diarrhea, or painful stools. However, the disease is fairly easy to treat with the same medications for ascariasis, and most people who contract whipworm will recover without any complications.

7. Schistosomiasis

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If you’ve been drinking the water in Latin America without any concerns, this disease will make you think twice before taking your next gulp. Schistosomiasis is a disease that people can become infected by after coming in contact with fresh water supplies that are infested with different forms of parasitic blood flukes. Essentially, they are microscopic worms that live inside your intestinal veins and cause serious damage to your health. 

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Unfortunately, schistosomiasis is a major poverty issues, as well as a critical health risk to developing areas around the world. According to the World Health Organization, the disease affects nearly 240 million people, with a high amount of cases in Latin America due to its warm climate and lack of clean water and sanitation. For those who catch the disease, it may take weeks for symptoms to appear, but once they do, they can surface as a fever, a rash, or as blood in the urine. The disease is certainly manageable, but quite often, severe damage has been done to the body once it’s diagnosed, which can lead to other serious health issues. 

8. Cholera

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Another disease that’s spread through contaminated water is cholera, and it’s extremely prevalent in poverty stricken areas with crowded conditions and poor sanitation. Combine those factors with a warm, coastal climate, and cholera bacteria is likely to spread at a rapid pace. Luckily, person to person contact ins’t likely, but there are several ways to come in contact with the disease in everyday activities. 

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Cholera can make its way into public wells, seafood, raw fruits and veggies, and different types of grain. Once the bacteria is ingested, symptoms can be very slow or they might surface right away. For most people, they may never know that they have the disease, but will still pass it along in their stool for up to two weeks. In extreme cases, a person can instantly get sick and expel lots of fluids in a short amount of time, resulting in dehydration and death. Other symptoms include seizures, a coma, or severe muscle cramps. To make sure you don’t become a victim, it’s always a good idea to follow proper hygiene protocols and seek treatment right away if you’re concerned. 

9. Blinding Trachoma

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Blinding trachoma is an eye disease that’s caused by a bacteria called chlamydia trachomatis. Currently, it is a major health problem in 37 countries and causes blindness for nearly 1.9 million people. Sadly, the effects from the disease are irreversible, and spreading the infection is easy to do through personal contact or flies that collect germs and transfer them through interaction. 

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Although it is most commonly found in Africa, central and south america hold a comparatively high rate of prevalence. This is due to environmental factors and poor hygiene practices that allow for the bacteria to thrive and spread. Typically, the infection is contracted when living closely to others who already have the disease. At first, a single episode of infection may not be anymore severe than a case of pink eye, but since the disease is so easy to catch, multiple episodes of trachoma force the eyelids to develop a scar tissue that rubs against the cornea and causes blindness. 

10. Cysticercosis

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Sorry to bring this back to parasites, but cysticercosis is a serious infection that causes major damage to the brain and body. It is essentially a kind of tapeworm (taenia solium) larvae that’s spread by those who have an intestinal tapeworm. The eggs are transferred through feces, which contaminates other sources, such as soil, water supplies, and crops. These sources are then ingested by a host and makes way for the disease to take effect. 

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Once a host has contracted the disease, cysts start to develop within the muscles, brain, eyes, and spinal cord. In some cases, the abnormal growths may not cause any damage, but most of the time, fatal health issues can arise. Someone with cysticercosis may experience seizures, headaches, issues with keeping their balance, and brain swelling. In severe cases, the presence of cysts can result in stroke or death. Medications for the disease are available . However, surgery is often needed to remove the tumors. 

11. Leprosy

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Bacteria seems to be the silent attacker in most Latin American diseases, and Leprosy is no exception to the rule. Although 95% of people have a natural resistance to the disease, leprosy is still prevalent in underdeveloped areas in Latin America. The World Health Organization claims that over 215,000 new cases of the disease have emerged since 2014, and over 2 million people are disabled or disfigured from its effects. 

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Through contact with an infected person, the bacteria typically surfaces as a discolored or red spot on the skin. Over time, the bacteria will spread to the hands and feet where it causes serious nerve damage that results in a loss of feeling or numbness. The extremities will start to become infected, in which case, amputation may be needed to prevent other life-threatening diseases. This same process can affect the eyes and parts of the face, which may lead to blindness or disfigurement. On the bright side, leprosy is curable with a certain antibiotics, but still, having to experience any part of it is certainly no picnic. 

Latin America has Tons to Offer

Overall, Latin America is a beautiful place with tons of exciting things to offer. These diseases shouldn’t scare you from traveling to one of the most exotic places in the world, but instead, it should fuel you with lots of insight and news ways to stay prepared. As long as you practice good hygiene and drink safe water supplies, you’ll have plenty of time for new selfies and endless memories.

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