Giardia in Pakistan, jungle rots in Guatemala, and dysentery in Haiti: I’ve had my share of on-the-road illness and bed-ridden days and know from experience it’s not fun. While international travel requires some precautionary measures to stay healthy, you shouldn’t let the slim possibility that you’ll contract something derail the adventure of a lifetime. After all, had I known the months of pestilent sores and creeping rash I would endure following my 5-day trek through the Guatemalan jungle, I may never have stood atop the tallest Maya pyramid in the world.
Luckily, Cuba has no malaria, yellow fever, typhoid and other tropical diseases, which plague many southern latitudes. It’s also a place that takes health and well being seriously, as evidenced by health indicators on the island – comparable to those in the USA and other developed nations. The following advice is tailored for visitors to Cuba: heed it and chances are you’ll remain hale and hearty throughout your stay. Should something befall you while here, rest assured that there is good care, plus well-equipped hospitals and clinics for visitors.
1. Stick to bottled, boiled or treated water: According to the Cuban Ministry of Public Health there has been an uptick in acute diarrheal illnesses, including over 50 confirmed cases of cholera in Havana (as of mid-January). While health authorities have activated comprehensive epidemiological control mechanisms, individuals are advised to take standard hygiene measures including always washing your hands with soap and water before eating or handling food and after using the bathroom. The water you drink and brush your teeth with should be bottled, boiled or treated and for the time being visitors are advised to forgo street food. Also take care with shellfish, which should always be well cooked – no ceviche for now, folks.
Health tip: Pack some antimicrobial gel and you’ll always have clean hands on hand.
2. Prevent heat stroke/exhaustion: Many visitors are unprepared for the hot, strong Cuban sun, particularly since we’re experiencing long stretches without any cold fronts. Daytime temperatures hover at around 90˚F and it’s important to stay hydrated – a good rule of thumb is if you’re waiting until you’re thirsty to drink water, you’re waiting too long. A wide-brimmed hat is a wise accessory; try to avoid sight seeing in the hottest part of the day.
Health tip: Seek shade whenever possible and pack some packets of a powdered electrolyte drink like Gatorade.
3. Watch your step: Havana’s streets and sidewalks are in a pretty shabby state, with tree roots buckling the concrete, uncovered utility holes waiting to swallow you up, and unevenness all around. Going on anecdotal evidence, I would venture a guess that some of the most common injuries to visitors are twisted, sprained or bruised ankles and limbs due to sidewalks in bad repair. Pick up a copy of Best Travel Writing Volume 9 and you can read all about when I fell in a hole in the middle of a Havana sidewalk – not pretty.
Health tip: If you have less than stellar night vision, carry a mini flashlight for navigating buckled and holey sidewalks after dark.
4. Pace yourself: Cubans are accustomed to burning the candle at both ends, working hard and partying hard(er); all this day and night activity can take its toll – particularly for those of us of a certain age. Especially on shorter trips and People-to-People programs where your days will be heavily scheduled, it’s important to pace yourself and make sure you get enough sleep.
Health tip: Embrace the siesta (or disco nap as I like to call it), getting a little rest during the hottest hours of the day.
5. Don’t inhale: As you’re probably well aware, Cuba has some of the world’s finest cigars and even people who would never consider smoking back home are often tempted to give the local merchandise a try. Though I’m a daily cigar smoker now, I will never forget the first time I smoked a Cohiba and inhaled; I can attest that there is no nausea compared to this. The room will spin, your gut will flip and nothing seems to help it pass, you just have to wait it out.
Health tip: If you have never smoked a cigar but want a taste, take a few small puffs of someone else’s before committing to a whole stogie yourself; or pass on the experience entirely.
Photo by alexbrn
6. Bring whatever basic and prescription medicines you take regularly: Resource scarcity compounded by the US embargo means some medicines that are easily obtainable in a drug store back home may not be available here. Common analgesics like aspirin and ibuprofen are always good to bring (and what you don’t use can be left behind with someone who needs them) and you should have ample supply of any prescription drugs you need.
Health tip: If you take prescription medicines, bring the generic name and your doctor’s prescription with you just in case; Cuba’s domestic biotechnology industry produces many prescription drugs and yours might be available.
In an article published in the daily newspaper Granma on January 19th, Cuban health authorities declared the outbreak of cholera in Havana almost completely under control. Nevertheless, vigilant epidemiological surveillance continues, as do aggressive health and hygiene measures in public spaces in the capital (cafeterias, restaurants, vegetable markets, health facilities and offices). Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to wash your hands in a diluted chlorine solution and to wipe and disinfect your shoes on mats provided for this purpose upon entering such places during your visit to Havana. Locals and visitors alike are strongly advised to continue drinking treated water and taking the measures indicated above.
Conner Gorry is Senior Editor at MEDICC Review and author of the Havana Good Time app, available for iOS and Android. She blogs at Here is Havana and has two Cuba stories in the anthology Best Travel Writing Volume 9 (2012).