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Tips for Health When Travel to China

If you're visiting Beijing, or travelling around China this summer, knowing just a few basic facts can keep you illness-free.


Untreated tap water is unsafe to drink anywhere in Mainland China. According to research published by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, more than half the water tested in China’s major cities is classified as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ quality. And if a Government spokesperson is saying it’s bad, you know it must be bloody terrible! Best stick to the bottled water.

As any over-zealous foreign exchange student will tell you (over a few pints): ‘save water, drink beer’. Of course, pickling yourself with alcohol is never the answer, especially if the booze is fake. Counterfeit alcohol is a huge, and rapidly burgeoning, underground industry in China. In January this year, Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau confiscated 37,000 bottles of bogus booze in one bust alone.

So how can you identify the fake stuff? The inferior-looking packaging can sometimes be a tip off, but as a common trick is to refill real bottles – especially if the produce being counterfeited is high-end – this often won’t help. If you want to be sure of avoiding the hangover from Hell that fake booze often induces, stick to more reputable establishments and use your common sense: if 5RMB (unit for China money) shooters seem too good to be true, it’s because they are. You might as well be slamming de-icer.

Food safety

Of course, a big part of travelling and exploring new cultures is sampling the local cuisine. Being mindful of a few dangers is all you need to make sure your visit to China doesn’t turn into a nightmarish tour of the country’s varied bathrooms.

If you’re curious to try street food, a good rule of thumb is to stick to vendors that cook the food in front of you – noodles you’ve seen in a wok or dumplings that have been steamed in your presence. That way you’re less likely to get sick. Although, of course, street food is always going to be something of a gastronomic roulette if your stomach isn’t used to it.

If you do get sick, many pharmacies are open 24 hours a day. Well, kind of: knock on the pharmacy door late at night and invariably a sleepy man in pyjamas will lurch to the door and sell you what you need through the security gates – kind of like a low-rent, 24-hour petrol station. Still, it’s just the ticket if you’re unwell – ask for aspirin, loperamides such as Imodium or any medicine for food poisoning. Tell them if you have diarrhoea , a fever, or if you’re vomiting; if these symptoms are serious, you can find a number of English-language hospitals in the Mind & Body listings.

If you’re dining out anywhere other than a high-end hotel or restaurant, you should avoid raw fruits and vegetables that you haven’t thoroughly washed yourself – especially salads – to avoid risk of hepatitis A. Unlike hepatitis B or C, which are blood-borne viruses usually contracted through sexual activity or unsterilised needles, hepatitis A is transmitted via the faecal-to-oral route. In China, where human waste is often used as a fertiliser, contamination through improperly washed fruits or vegetables is an acute concern. You can still buy local produce, just be sure to disinfect it thoroughly before you eat it. And if you want a salad, best stick to internationally reputable restaurants.

Bird Flu

At the time of going to press, at least 131 people have been infected by the H7N9 virus and 35 have died since the outbreak in March. Thus far, the influenza is localised to the east coast, mostly from Shandong in the north down to Fujian in the south, with only one reported infection in Beijing which is very hot destination for China tour deals. Still, if you want to remain vigilant, symptoms include, according to the British Embassy, ‘flu-like illness with a high fever and cough which progresses to breathing difficulties, pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome’. But don’t reach for your hazmat suit just yet; according to the World Health Organization (WHO) ‘There is no indication thus far that [H7N9] can be transmitted between people.’ Their advice, for now, is to avoid live chickens or uncooked poultry, but well-cooked chicken is safe.

Travelling around China

Be mindful of the threat of rabies, particularly if you’re planning a foray to the countryside. China is purportedly second only to India for the highest rate of infections and over 2,400 people die of rabies every year. Beijing United Family Hospital offers a rabies vaccination for 1,800RMB. It requires three injections, over a month, in total (the second a week after the first, the third 21 days after the second) and will not be effective until you’ve had all three shots. See listings for address and contact information.

According to the US-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), travellers are at risk from Malaria in China’s Southwestern provinces, namely Anhui, Guizhou, Hainan, Henan, Hubei and Yunnan (listed as one destination of top 10 China tour packages). However, rare cases have also been reported in other provinces. If you plan to travel to these places, be sure to get your anti-malaria pills before you leave Beijing. Be advised: some medications have to be taken up to a month before they are effective. For more information and for a list of clinics near you that offer such medication, call the National Public Sanitary Hotline on 12320 (Mandarin only); alternatively some Beijing United Family clinics, among other hospitals, can help.

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