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Health on the Project

Staying healthy on an international project is best done with a balance of preparation, observation, and common sense. Locals who have long been exposed to the conditions in their country may have built an immunity to some local health problems. Without such immunity, you need to proceed cautiously, but without undue fear.

Observe what precautions other foreigners take. Seek the guidance of the people from the field organization that oversee the project.

Have a Plan

Being prepared mentally for a medical situation is key. Shortly after you arrive, determine where to go for various degrees of emergencies.

Carry the phone numbers of important contacts with you at all times — the field organization staff, a recommended local doctor or hospital, and the MedEvac organization. These precautions cost little, and may be crucial in the unlikely event of an emergency.


Tap water in many parts of the developing world is undrinkable by people from developed countries. It can carry impurities or disease to which locals may have an immunity.

Do not accept the blanket guideline that major hotels and restaurants in large cities will only serve safe water. Ask your hosts, other foreigners, or people from your field organization if it is indeed safe for newcomers.

In practice, there are many variations on the water situation. In some places, the water inside fresh vegetables or salads will make you sick. In some countries, city water tap is acceptable, but the rural water supply is off-limits.

The mantra “don't drink the water, why take a chance?&rdquob is a good starting point. However, bottled water may be difficult to find in a country where the tap water is considered safe for all. This is coupled with the fact that you will probably be drinking far more water than typical, because of a dry climate or a higher activity level.

Our approach is to scope out a source of sealed bottled water as soon as we arrive, and purchase what appears to be an absurd amount of it.

If you must drink questionable water, boil it. To be safe, heat the water at a high rolling boil for 1 minute. Coffee, tea, and cocoa made by boiling water are usually safe, unless they have been made by just heating instant coffee.

Some travelers use water filters. However, their proper use and maintenance can be tricky, and the US Public Health Service has not proven their effectiveness. Filtered water should also be boiled.

Likewise, neither adding alcohol to questionable water nor freezing it will make it safe. One of the classic mistakes is to accept a drink with ice cubes. Ice cubes made from unsafe water will make you sick. Be sure to brush your teeth with bottled water, and avoid water in your mouth during showers.

Carbonated drinks in sealed bottles or cans are acceptable. We try to stick with brand names of large international producers (Canada Dry, Coke, Pepsi, etc) because we expect that they have a rigorous quality control program. Avoid beverages made by adding water to concentrate, such as orange juice.


“Boiled, peeled, or scrubbed” is a good guideline. Food that has been recently well-cooked and served hot is your best choice. Fruit you have peeled yourself is usually safe. Avoid uncooked vegetables and salads.

We have broken all these rules on occasion, through carelessness or necessity. The results have been mixed. Diarrhea usually lasts 3 to 5 days, and Imodium or other anti-diarrhea medication can help immensely.

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