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"Don't write about potential problems," an eminent travel industry person once said to me, "People want to have fun on vacation."

They still do, but intelligent travelers go by the old folk saying, "Plan for the worst, hope for the best." That's why people buy travel insurance, or health insurance, for that matter. And since 9/11, we have been forced to think about travel safety, for reasons we'd all like to forget, but can't.

Once a month, I propose we think about "problems," the better to make sure we can enjoy our vacations, business trips or occasional jaunts and excursions. If we plan to go out into the woods, so to speak, we should try to be good Boy or Girl Scouts, at least. Rising only to Second Class in the Scouts, I did get merit badges in map making, so I should be a somewhat qualified guide myself, if not as perfect as an Eagle Scout might be.

"Problems"

In months ahead, my columns will cover airplane health and safety (including new technology aboard), ditto for trains, buses and ships; travel health & safety insurance; authoritative sources for information; travel with allergies or preexisting medical conditions; checklists for healthy traveling; preparing for adventure travel (hiking, rafting, etc.); immunizations; drinking the water, foods to avoid and where; airport security shortcuts; communicating in foreign languages; World Health Organization's Top 13 health problems (starting with traveler's diarrhea, the most common); a travel health kit; unsafe airlines; bird flu; filling your prescriptions abroad; what to do in emergencies (natural or manmade); medical services abroad and more.

The Good News

Researchers in many places are working on technology to help make travel healthier and safer, the biggest of these being those good folks at Boeing, who swear their new 787 "Dreamliner" will be safer because it's built of composite materials (think "plastic"), and healthier, because cabin air will be re-circulated faster, with more fresh air introduced than on earlier models and on planes made by other manufacturers. The 787 cabins also will be pressurized at about 6,000 feet instead of the old 8,000 feet, so the air will not be so thin or so headache-inducing, they say. Even the bigger-than-all-other-aircraft windows should help a bit, perhaps with those suffering from mild claustrophobia. The first 787 will be flown by All Nippon Airways in May, 2008 if all goes well. Among U.S. airlines only Continental and Northwest have ordered the craft to date, to be delivered in 2009 at the earliest, sources now say. After All Nippon, the next few airlines in order to receive planes are all foreign.

Best Sources of Information

More good news: The best government source, worldwide, is our own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has an excellent website (www.cdc.gov) and superb print publications. There's a big section on Travelers' Health and another on Emergency Preparedness & Response. The Travelers' Health section includes the straight dope on country-by-country topics, including health information for specific destinations and a phone hot line (tel. 877/FYI TRIP) for ordering the Yellow Book and Certificates of Vaccination as well as recorded messages on travel-related health subjects. Specific topics include vaccinations, diseases, mosquito and tick protection, safe food and water, illness and injury abroad, clinics, and more. Though the Yellow Book (new 2008 edition just out) is for health professionals, others might find it useful, as I do.

Dr. Christie Reed of the Travelers' Health section advises website users to look on the right-hand side of the section's front page, where they can "sign up for email updates in the areas of their interest, and look for Travel Notices, such as Warnings of Outbreaks." On July 14, 2007, for instance, the list of outbreaks included malaria in Jamaica and Chikungunya fever in India, to mention only two incidents. The site also has information for specific groups and situations, such as traveling with children, travelers with special needs (disabilities, etc.), info for students studying abroad, traveling with pets, and more.

Private Sources

In my opinion, the best nongovernmental group to contact is IAMAT (see full disclosure below), the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers (tel. 716/754-4883; www.iamat.org, email info@iamat.org), which will send you a free directory of western-trained English-speaking doctors in 89 countries and 343 cities abroad. (There are 32 clinics in China alone, for instance.) IAMAT is a registered nonprofit organization established to provide medical information to travelers and to make competent medical care available to them worldwide. It maintains an international network of physicians, hospitals and clinics who have agreed to treat IAMAT members in need of medical care while abroad. Membership is free, although a donation to support IAMAT efforts is appreciated. Members receive a directory of participating physicians and medical centers and have access to a variety of travel-related informational brochures.

Since IAMAT relies on its own network of physicians around the world, its information is occasionally more accurate than the World Health Organization's, as WHO has to rely on UN member governments for its information, and some governments occasionally fall behind in reporting, as in the SARS epidemic, for instance. Among the publications you can download on the IAMAT site are the World Immunization Chart, the World Malaria Risk Chart and "How to Protect Yourself Against Malaria." IAMAT has been offering its free service since 1960, and 82% of donations go to services for members.

Full Disclosure: The author is Vice President (pro bono) of IAMAT, a charity registered both in the United States and Canada.

There are plenty of other sources, of course, many of which I will discuss in future columns. But I think we are off to a good beginning with these.

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