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Health

Before You Go -- Vaccinations are not required to enter New Zealand. Health insurance is strongly advised because New Zealand's public and private medical/hospital facilities are not free to visitors, except as a result of accident. Make sure your health insurance covers you when you're out of the country; if it doesn't, get temporary medical coverage for the duration of your trip. Be sure to carry your identification card in your wallet.

Contact the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) (tel. 716/754-4883 or, in Canada, 416/652-0137; www.iamat.org) for tips on travel and health concerns in the countries you're visiting, and for lists of local, English-speaking doctors. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (tel. 800/311-3435; www.cdc.gov) provides up-to-date information on health hazards by region or country and offers tips on food safety. Travel Health Online (www.tripprep.com), sponsored by a consortium of travel medicine practitioners, may also offer helpful advice on traveling abroad. You can find listings of reliable medical clinics overseas at the International Society of Travel Medicine (www.istm.org).

It is advisable to bring any of your current prescription drug requirements with you -- but be sure to carry a prescription note from your doctor. Pack prescription medications in your carry-on luggage, and carry them in their original containers, with pharmacy labels -- otherwise they won't make it through airport security. Carry the generic name of prescription medicines, in case a local pharmacist is unfamiliar with the brand name. It is not necessary to pack anti-diarrheal and/or anti-emetic products as these are available over-the-counter in New Zealand pharmacies -- as are most generic prescription drugs for common problems like headaches, coughs, fevers, and influenza.

Following are some ailments to be aware of:

  • Bugs, Bites & Other Wildlife Concerns -- You've heard that New Zealand is a relatively safe place? Believe it! We have no snakes, no alligators or crocodiles, no wild animals of note, no scorpions. The worst we can offer you is our poisonous katipo spider, but because you're about as likely to see one of those, much less be bitten, as you are to encounter a bison in the main street of Auckland, I wouldn't start panicking just yet.

    But knowledge is power, so here are the spidery details. The New Zealand katipo - Latrodectus katipo and L. atritus (yes, there are two species) -- favors sparsely vegetated sand dunes and driftwood above the high-tide mark on sandy beaches. L. katipo is distinguished by the coloration of the adult female: black with a red stripe on the abdomen. The mature male is about one-sixth the size of the female and is predominantly white with a series of orange-red triangles and black lines on the abdomen. L. atritus is completely black.

    Both species are poisonous, but they are rarely seen. And given that New Zealand is a nation of beach-lovers, it is comforting to know that there have only been two recorded fatalities, both in the 1800s - largely unconvincing evidence of toxic spiders. If, in the unlikely event that you are bitten by something black while on the beach, try to have the presence of mind to capture the offender and then take yourself off to the nearest hospital.

    Heading inland, especially in the deep south around Fiordland, Te Anau, and up the South Island's West Coast, the biggest irritation will be sand flies. They may be tiny, but they have the power to drive you absolutely crazy. Take gallons of strong insect repellent, and keep dousing yourself in it. If you still get bitten, try not to scratch and ladle on plenty of antihistamine to prevent swelling. The good news is that not everybody suffers. I'm one of the lucky ones - sand flies don't seem to like my blood. You'll just have to hope you're as unattractive to them as I am.

  • Environmental Hazards -- The ocean holds its fair share of dangers. Most popular New Zealand beaches are patrolled by lifeguards, and you should always swim between the flags. Ask if you're unsure, because many beaches have dangerous currents and holes. In more remote areas, beaches are not patrolled, and you should exercise common sense before entering the waves. This particularly applies to the hazardous west coast beaches of the whole country. You'll notice most New Zealanders swim on the much safer east coast beaches and seldom on any west coast beaches. I would strongly advise against swimming on any west coast beaches unless they have lifesaving patrols on duty. Never swim alone anywhere.

    On the subject of beaches, it's important to point out the danger of sharks. Always check with the locals as to the possibility of sharks in the ocean. As we all know, the threat of being attacked can never be underestimated.

    As with beaches, mountain and bush safety should be a matter of common sense, but you would be amazed at how many people think they know better than the locals, setting off on a bush walk with no warm clothing (just because the sun is shining at the beginning is no guarantee that it will be farther on), no extra water, and no precautionary measures taken whatsoever. Hypothermia, exposure, and excessive sunburn are very real dangers in New Zealand, and you take your life in your hands if you ignore warnings. Every year we read the news reports of some international visitors who have ignored the warning and ventured into the mountains ill-prepared, and have never returned. Some have never been found.

    Take very particular note of rain warnings if you're going into the mountains. Most New Zealand rivers rise very quickly, especially in the South Island, and many people have drowned trying to cross swiftly flowing, flooded rivers.

  • Dietary Distress -- The only thing to look out for in the bush is the possibility of Giardia, a waterborne parasite that causes diarrhea. Always boil water when you're hiking. Closer to civilization, do take particular care in summer that all food is kept cool, especially chicken, eggs, and meat products. I'm sad to report that studies have shown that New Zealand has the highest incidence of Campylobacter in the developed world. Over 75,000 New Zealanders get stomach upsets as a result of these bacteria every year, so take care. Like Salmonella (also relatively common here), it is usually associated with poor hygiene and contaminated food products. Always eat fresh food, make sure all chicken is thoroughly cooked, and always wash your hands before eating. Food poisoning is usually indicated by symptoms like diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and muscle aches. Most people recover without treatment in a few days, but if symptoms persist, you should see a doctor.

What to Do if You Get Sick Away From Home -- Almost all New Zealand cities and many smaller towns have a general hospital or emergency medical facilities, and the standard of medical care in New Zealand is excellent. Obviously, the bigger the city, the better the facilities, with Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin having the most, the biggest, and the best facilities. As a visitor you will pay for any hospital or medical care, unless you are admitted via an accident situation. Most cities also have a 24-hour doctor and pharmacy facility for filling urgent prescriptions.

Very few health insurance plans pay for medical evacuation back to the U.S. (which can cost $10,000 and up). A number of companies offer medical evacuation services anywhere in the world. If you're ever hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, MedjetAssist (tel. 800/527-7478; www.medjetassistance.com) will pick you up and fly you to the hospital of your choice virtually anywhere in the world in a medically equipped and staffed aircraft 24 hours day, 7 days a week. Annual memberships are $225 individual, $350 family; you can also purchase short-term memberships.

U.K. nationals will need a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) to receive free or reduced-costs health benefits during a visit to a European Economic Area (EEA) country (European Union countries plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway) or Switzerland. The European Health Insurance Card replaces the E111 form, which is no longer valid. For advice, ask at your local post office or see www.dh.gov.uk/travellers.

Before leaving home, find out what medical services your health insurance covers. To protect yourself, consider buying medical travel insurance.

Insurance

Purchase travel insurance before you come to New Zealand, so that you'll be covered for any unexpected medical expenses and lost belongings. For information on traveler's insurance, trip cancellation insurance, and medical insurance while traveling, please visit www.frommers.com/planning.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.