When corporate trekkers travel abroad, they're most likely focused on the business at hand.
But with U.S. health officials issuing a travel warning for parts of West Africa in the wake of an unprecedented outbreak of the Ebola virus, and violence gripping regions from the Middle East to Ukraine, it's clear that knowing the politics and potential perils at your destination is as critical as mapping out a corporate presentation.
"Given the significant elevation of travel-related health, terrorism and war risks, it is essential that business travelers understand the locations of and types of hazards they will likely face,'' says Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition. "Likewise, it is important that family members are made comfortable that their loved one has a strategy to keep safe while traveling overseas."
Currently, much attention is being focused on the health of travelers as the international community grapples with an Ebola outbreak that has infected more than 1,700 people and left 932 dead. U.S. health officials have issued a travel warning for Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. U.S. and international health officials are encouraging airline crews to isolate fliers who have been to those nations if they are exhibiting symptoms of the potentially deadly virus. And some airlines have suspended flights to parts of West Africa.
Still, more businesses need to take steps to safeguard their employees' health while traveling abroad.
"Unfortunately, there are not enough that do,'' says Phyllis Kozarsky, expert travel health consultant with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Travelers' Health Branch."I think most companies understandably are focused on other types of things and don't tend to think about travel health, and we'd like to encourage business travelers and companies to start engaging in this kind of activity, certainly as more and more companies become global.''
It makes sense for a company's bottom line, too. The CDC Foundation says that for every 100,000 travelers visiting a developing country for four weeks, 50,000 will have some health challenge while on the road, 8,000 will need to visit a doctor, and 50 will need to be evacuated by air for treatment.
And while it costs $162 on average to prevent an employee from contracting malaria, treating an infected adult adds up to $25,250, and the employee, on average, will lose six to 24 days of work.
To help business travelers prepare for their trips abroad, the CDC Foundation launched an online health primer in June as part of its "business pulse" series. Business travelers can click on a world map to get general information about the challenges they might face in a given region, then tap on various links to access more specific information.
"Business travelers ... tend to think they're not vulnerable, and common sense often goes out the window,'' says Kozarsky, a physician who is also co-director of the travel clinic at Emory University. They think, " 'I can eat anything I want; I can do anything I want ... and I'm fine.' ''
But, she adds, travelers need to be aware of vaccinations they need, and not just those that may be specifically required to enter a particular country.
In regard to measles for instance, "People naturally don't think it's a hazard of travel,'' Kozarsky says. "But ... particularly when we're stepping out to ... developing countries, where vaccine-preventable diseases have not been managed, there's even a greater risk. So we make sure they've had polio shots, and rubella and chicken pox.''
Travelers need to know to protect themselves from an insect-borne disease such as malaria by taking pills and using bug repellent. And they should understand how best to treat an upset stomach so they don't wind up sidelined.
"Business travelers especially can't afford to take a day off, stay in bed,'' she says. "So we inform them about medication, for example Imodium, that will stop the cramps and diarrhea so they can be in the meeting comfortably.''
CDC literature even addresses the possibility of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.
"Casual and unprotected sex is something that occurs not uncommonly,'' she says, "and business travelers need to consider that and travel with condoms from home and be wise.''
USA TODAY's panel of Road Warriors draws on a variety of resources to prepare for an international trip, from online research, to reading their destination's local papers, and reaching out to friends and business associates for information on a given area.
Brian Kujala, who spends about a month each year working overseas in his role as a sales director, makes sure any mentions in the news of the country he's visiting are automatically fed to his e-mail inbox.
He includes sources that have a sharper focus on where he'll be traveling. "We do business in Turkey,'' he says, "so Al Jazeera is a lot better news source than NBC or CNN."
Doug Houseman, a consulting engineer who lives in Plymouth, Mich., checks with the Transportation Security Administration for warnings about unsafe airports, as well as the airlines. He also looks to Interpol to learn about areas with a high crime rate and checks the Facebook page for Doctors Without Borders to see if more assistance is being sought in a particular area. "This is one of the best early warnings that I know of,'' he says.
He also taps into his personal network, reaching "out to members of the professional societies that I am a member of to see what they have to say about their local conditions and any do's and don'ts.''
It's not just crime, disease or political strife that a business traveler needs to be aware of.
Being naïve about local laws can also cause a traveler grief, "like the old taxi laws in South Korea that made the passenger liable for any accidents,'' Houseman says. "These have changed. But there are literally thousands of laws that can get you in trouble.''
Business travelers should consider travel insurance. Such policies, provided to some employees by their companies, can ensure an ill traveler gets proper medical assistance on the road, and, if necessary, evacuated to receive care back home.
George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, says visiting the U.S. State Department's website and similar information portals hosted by other nations can help travelers keep track of any advisories. And registering your presence in a foreign country with the local consulate or embassy can also bring a little peace of mind.
In the end, it's smart to be cautious. But, Hobica adds, the "truth is, the chances of something dire happening are small.''
Tips for traveling abroad
• Check the U.S. State Department's website before you go for any travel advisories.travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/alertswarnings.html
• Scour news sources to find out about any political upheaval, illness outbreaks or other problems affecting your destination.
• Consider buying travel insurance.