UK holiday hotspots: Health warning issued after returning British tourists infected with serious diseases

A major warning has been issued after an increasing number of British tourists are being infected with serious diseases

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A major warning has been issued for holidaymakers, amid growing concerns over the increasing number of British travellers developing serious illnesses and infections while abroad. According to the UK Health Security Agency, British visitors to some popular global places have returned with serious illnesses including dengue and malaria - as travel-associated mosquito-borne infections are returning to pre-pandemic levels.

The agency said in 2023, 634 dengue cases were reported in returning travellers across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, aligning closely with those in 2019, during the pre-pandemic period, when 790 cases were reported. These reported cases were acquired in Southern Asia and South-Eastern Asia, particularly India. There's also been an increase in cases reported in Central America and the Caribbean.

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Meanwhile, a total of 1,637 malaria cases were confirmed in England from January to October 2023, with cases returning to pre-pandemic levels, similar to the 1,719 cases reported in the UK in 2019 and matching closely with the average of 1,612 cases reported between 2010 and 2019. The World Health Organization reports that in 2022, global malaria cases were estimated at 249 million, surpassing pre-pandemic levels by 16 million compared to 2019.  

Eight Zika cases were also reported in England in 2023 – a similar level to 2022. Case numbers peaked in 2016 with 725 cases, reflecting the Zika outbreak in America that year, before decreasing in the following years. While cases of Zika are low, the infection poses a particular threat to pregnant women and those trying to conceive.   

Symptoms of infections caused by mosquitoes include fever, severe headache, pain behind the eyes, muscle and joint pain, stomach pain, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting. The Travel Health Pro website, supported by the UK Health Security Agency, provides information on health risks in countries around the world and is a one-stop-shop for information to help people plan their trip abroad.

A major warning has been issued after an increasing number of British tourists infected with serious diseasesA major warning has been issued after an increasing number of British tourists infected with serious diseases
A major warning has been issued after an increasing number of British tourists infected with serious diseases

Dr Dipti Patel, Director of the National Travel Health Network and Centre, said:  "If you are making plans to travel abroad this year, please take a moment to prioritise your health and plan ahead. Check the relevant country information pages on our website, TravelHealthPro, and ideally speak to your GP or a travel health clinic 4-6 weeks ahead of travelling to ensure you have had all the necessary vaccinations and advice you need to ensure your trip is a happy and healthy one. When you return to the UK, if you feel unwell, seek medical attention and ensure you inform your healthcare provider that you have been travelling recently.  

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In countries with insects that spread diseases like dengue, malaria or Zika, travellers can protect themselves by using insect repellent, covering exposed skin, and sleeping under a treated bed net where air conditioning is not available.   

Dr Philip Veal, Consultant in Public Health at the UK Health Security Agency, said:  "As travel has increased following the lifting of travel restrictions during the pandemic, so have serious mosquito borne infections. There are simple steps that people can take to reduce the risk of infections such as malaria, dengue and Zika.

"Prevent mosquito bites by using insect repellent, covering exposed skin and sleeping under a treated bed net. Plan ahead and visit the TravelHealthPro website to look up your destination and the latest health information and advice. Even if you have visited or lived in a country before, you will not have the same protection against infections as local people and are still at risk."

It is also important for travellers to:   

  • ensure your routine childhood vaccines are up to date
  • stock up on necessary medications
  • get valid travel insurance to cover your entire trip and planned activities

NaTHNaC (National Travel Health Network and Centre) and the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) have also recently reviewed destination-specific guidance for countries with a known or possible risk of Zika virus. 

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Zika virus infection is usually a short-lived flu like illness, sometimes with a rash and itchy skin, severe disease is unusual. However, while serious complications and deaths from Zika are rare, infection in pregnancy can cause birth defects. There is no drug or vaccine to prevent Zika. The only way to try and prevent infection is by minimising mosquito bites or by avoiding visiting regions with a known or potential Zika risk.

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