Health risks: immunizations, vaccinations, and more

Is it safe to travel to China?

It’s easy for first-time travelers to China to get freaked out. We remember reading about SARS, Avian Flu, and the Swine Flu (should I keep kosher?).

Precautions during swine flu scare.

But remember, China’s a big country and random outbreaks — usually in some remote villages — do happen from time to time. If nothing else, the Chinese government likes to tackle problems fast & head-on — any potential outbreaks would likely result in quarantines faster than a zombie outbreak (sometimes a police state does have its advantages).

Also, remind yourself that the media loves to blow things like “potential global pandemics” way out of proportion relative to actual risk. For example, based on the heavy news coverage during the Mad Cow scare in the U.S., you’d imagine that the whole country was dying from beef products. Or recall the 2003 media panic over the SARS “global pandemic”? According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) only about 8,000 people worldwide contracted SARS during that outbreak. Of those patients, only 774 actually died (in the US, there were 8 cases and zero deaths).

Meanwhile, the CDC also reports that about 20,000 Americans die from the common flu every year. And each year another 15,000 Americans die from accidental falls. But those type of everyday dangers rarely make headlines.

And to make things worse, the U.S. State Department & CDC tend to be very conservative when it comes to listing all the potential travel dangers. It’s safer for them to make sure that they cover all their bases by detailing every possible disease and risk.

But don’t believe the hype. Unless you’re way off the tourist track — trekking through remote jungles or wrestling rabid monkeys— your chances of contracting anything other than a common cold is slim.

Link to: U.S. State Department’s China travel page Includes info on safety, crime, medical facilities, health, etc

Link to: CDC’s China travel page Includes info & tips for preparing for your trip to China

If you’re freaked out by all of the potential dangers listed, it might help you to look at the British government’s warnings to their citizens traveling to the U.S., which includes: earthquakes, mosquito-borne diseases, hurricanes, terrorist car bombs, AIDS, wildfires, and violent crime (okay, they might have a point on that one).

And if you happen to be an American who worries about all of these things on a daily basis….then maybe it’s better to just stay in the safety of your underground bomb shelter.

Required vaccinations before entering China?

There are no vaccinations required to enter China. But if you’ve recently been in South America or Africa, you may need to present proof of a yellow fever vaccination.

Health risksbefore you travel:

So while the odds of coming into contact with anything serious is low, most guidebooks recommend getting or updating these vaccinations just to be on the safe side:
• Hepatitis A — can spread through contaminated water or food
• Hepatitis B — far less common but not a bad idea
• Measles, mumps, & rubella (MMR)
• Typhoid
• Adult diphtheria and tetanus

For longer-term visitors to China (or easily freaked out travelers), consider:
• Influenza & pneumonia — recommended for those over 65 or with medical conditions, especially if traveling during winter
• Rabies
• Japanese B encephalitis — if traveling in rural areas during the summer
• Malaria & dengue fever — usually localized outbreaks in southern China during the summer

Health precautions & tips:

Aside from catching a cold or flu infection during winter month travel, the biggest health risk for most travelers is stomach illness. This can range from mild traveler’s diarrhea (as your body adapts to the local environs) to food poisoning. Fortunately, in my experience anyway, these issues are far less common in China than you might think, since most Chinese cuisines use the freshest ingredients possible and are cooked at high temperatures.

FOOD: Avoid eating raw, uncooked or partially cooked food, including salads (except at upscale restaurants & hotels). Stick with fruit that you’ve peeled yourself. Be wary of any foods that look like they’ve been sitting for a while. Whether eating in a restaurant or street cart, as a rule of thumb, I only go with places that look busy with a decent turnover. This is especially true of restaurants that serve pre-prepared food (buffet-style). But it’d be a shame to be overly paranoid and miss out on the foods that China offers, so just be smart and enjoy!

WATER: Don’t drink untreated tap water and avoid public fountains. Outside of upscale restaurants, I’d be wary about drinking the water since the Chinese drink tea and rarely request a glass of water (especially with ice which goes against Chinese traditional medicine). Personally, I’m a little paranoid that they’re giving me tap water. Even though I wasn’t too worried about riding a motorcycle without a helmet on the chaotic city streets of India (not very smart in retrospect)….I don’t like to take unnecessary risks with stomach problems when traveling.

So either get used to drinking tea…..or order a soft drink or bottled water (I usually travel with a bottle in my bag). Boiled water (开水 = “kai shway”) is commonly found in hotels and trains (the Chinese can’t live without their tea). Consider using boiled water or bottled water — cheap and widely available — for brushing teeth during your first week as your body acclimates.

Other tips & precautions:

Travel with Imodium D (or other anti-diarrhea meds), especially on long bus or train rides (I eat & drink sparingly and bring my own snacks). Avoid taking these meds unless you really need to, since they inhibit the ability of your body’s immune system to take care of the problem.

• In addition to your own necessary medications, bring your mini-first aid kit if traveling in less developed or rural areas (painkillers, bandages, antibacterial cream, oral rehydration solution, etc)

• If you’re sensitive to pollution (or if caught in a Beijing sand storms), it’s easy to buy one of those surgical/dust masks in China, which at the very least, filter out the larger dust particles.

Hospitals & Emergency Care:

Traditional Chinese medicine.

Like everything else, health & emergency care standards continue to improve in China. In Hong Kong, you’ll find first world facilities & standards comparable to those of developed Western countries (as well as a more English-speaking staff). Elsewhere in China, there’s a considerable range depending on size and wealth of a specific city/region (as well as size of ex-pat population).

For instance, in Shanghai or Beijing, you’ll find international hospitals with English speaking doctors and staff. In general, look for the largest hospital in the biggest city in the area. Some larger, upscale international hotels in China even have an English-speaking doctor or nurse on-site.

For non-emergency and less serious aliments, consider Chinese Traditional Medicine (best to ask for a recommendation and bring an interpreter). You’ll also find pharmacies — marked with green cross — but chose the biggest one in town since counterfeit drugs are a problem.

For over-the-counter medications, a good bet is to find a Watsons — an excellent Hong Kong-based drugstore chain.


Beijing United Family Hospital
Tel: +86-10-6433 3960
Emergency Hotline: +86-10-6433 2345
No2 Jiang Tai Lu, Chao Yang District, Beijing 100016

International Medical Center (IMC) in Beijing
Tel: +86-10-6465 1561/2/3 (24-hour)
Lufthansa Center, Office Building, Suite 106, 50 Liang Ma Qiao Rd., Chao Yang District

Beijing Friendship Hospital/ GlobalDoctor Clinic
Tel: +86-10-84569191, +86-10-8315 1915
95 Yong An Lu, Xuan Wu District, Beijing 100050
Email: [email protected]


Hua Shan Hospital
Tel: +86-21-6248 3986, +86-21- 6248 9999 ext. 2531
15th Floor, Foreigner’s Clinic, Zong He Lou, 12 Wulumuqi Zhong Lu, Shanghai

Hua Dong Hospital
Tel: +86-21-6248 4867, +86-21-6248 3180 ext.3106
2nd Floor, Foreigner’s Clinic, 221 Yanan Xi Road, Shanghai

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