Guatemala - Health & Disease
The horror stories definitely plague blogs, forums and guide books when it comes to staying healthy while traveling to Guatemala. There's the all-too-common story of getting stomach trouble the night before needing to board a long-distance bus, or being served coffee with water that hasn't been boiled enough. Stories like this make you question what to eat, where to eat it and how, but it's not just the food issues that can make you sick in Guatemala. Here there are other health concerns that stem from bad water, malaria and dengue fever to name a few.
(go easy on these little bits of dynamite!)
When Good Food Goes Bad
Obviously health standards in this country are a bit lower than in developed countries, so knowing whether the food you're eating is fresh, clean and well-done is usually a mystery. Yes, there are those standard rules of avoiding street food and only eating in places that are busy, but many travellers would disagree on the first part. At least then you can see how your food is handled and cooked instead of telling yourself a lie as cooks behind closed doors use contaminated meat in your meal giving you food poisoning.
Overall, the best tip is to eat where the locals eat, and especially in places that are extremely busy. Even though Guatemalans may have stronger stomachs when it comes to the water and food, they still get and loathe food poisoning.
Keep Your Mouth Closed in the Shower
You can eat peanut butter sandwiches your entire time in Guatemala, but if you let your guard down in the shower for example, the water might get in your system and cause a bit of the gurgle tummy troubles.
There are actually no water laws in Guatemala, and all the municipalities are responsible for the area's water, which is, for foreigners and many locals, not compatible with stomachs. A homestay student in Quetzaltenango notes that most families will own a bottled water setup for drinking and cooking.
Beyond drinking bottled water, be sure to peel your fruits and vegetables (to protect against pesticides as well) and boil water when necessary.
Diseases the Bugs Bring
Guatemala is known to have one of the highest rates of malaria infection in Central America, at least until recent years where reports show a 95% reduction in cases because of educational programs. Still, it’s a concern for travellers in areas below the 1500m altitude range. It is highly recommended to take anti-malaria medication, but these are not 100% effective and mosquito-smart tactics should be applied.
Malaria is not an issue in Antigua, Guatemala City or Lago Atitlan area.
Dengue fever is transmitted by the Aedes mosquito and is a problem more in the rainy season. These mosquitoes are found in urban areas, bite during the day and love stagnant water. There is no vaccine or treatment for this disease except bed or hospital rest, so the best protection is to use bug repellant and wear clothes that cover the body.
Other Health Concerns
There have been outbreaks of cholera in the past in Guatemala, but this is a rare ailment for travellers to get, so much so that getting a cholera vaccine is not required. Cholera is spread through infected water and food, so always take care.
Hepatitis A and B are common in developing countries, such as Guatemala, so vaccines are highly recommended before traveling.
Rabies is a problem mainly because of the large number of stray dogs in the country. Most travellers will not need to worry, but it is suggested that individuals in rural areas get vaccinated in case emergency attention is unattainable.
Altitude sickness can affect people at altitudes around 2400 meters, but symptoms may begin as early as 2000 meters. You should think about altitude sickness if planning to do some hiking of Tajumulco Volcano, which is the highest elevation in the country reaching 4220 meters.
Author: Phil Sylvester
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