For Australians moving to South America, healthcare is one of the most important things you will need to consider.
However, if you’ve decided to move to South America, you may need to put in a little more thought than, say, someone moving to Western Europe. Many South American countries are developing countries, and this raises health concerns that aren’t an issue in Australia. Before leaving, you’ll need to prepare by getting the appropriate vaccinations and medications you might need, potentially buying some essential healthcare items, and getting an adequate insurance policy. Once you arrive, you’ll have to be careful about the food and water you consume as your body gets used to a new environment, potentially get accustomed to the altitude, and get yourself acquainted with the local healthcare system.
Before you go
Australians moving to South America should talk to a travel doctor about vaccinations before leaving home. A couple of months before you set off for South America, it’s a good idea to book in a consultation at a travel clinic to discuss your health needs.
What you need will vary widely depending on which country you’re going to, what you’ll be doing and which areas you plan to visit. However, some of the vaccinations you might be recommended include typhoid, hepatitis A, rabies, diphtheria and tetanus. For many parts of South America, it’s also very important to have a yellow fever vaccination before leaving. Once you have the vaccination you will be given a small yellow certificate to carry with you and prove you have it. Policies on requesting this certificate when entering and leaving different countries and crossing borders are far from uniform, but there have been reports of people being denied entry to certain countries due to being unable to produce the certificate. You will also be asked for the certificate upon return to Australia if you have spent more than a night in a yellow fever endemic country in the past six days.
You should also discuss the risk of malaria with a travel doctor. Again, this risk varies widely depending on where you’ll be going. If you’ll be living somewhere with a significant risk of malaria, your doctor may recommend antimalarial medication.
Other mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue fever, chikungunya and zika are present in some parts of South America. Pregnant women, or women who are trying to get pregnant, should seek medical advice before travelling to South America due to the risk of zika. A doctor can also advise you on preventative measures, such as DEET mosquito repellent, protective clothing, and mosquito nets, to help protect you against mosquito-borne illnesses depending on where you’re going.
What you should bring
Something else to be aware of before moving to South America is that you may not be able to find all the health-related products you’re used to accessing back home. If you’re headed to a major city you should be fine, but if you’re going somewhere more remote you might like to stock up on certain things before leaving. Tampons, contraceptives and some medications can be hard to find in certain parts of the continent. If you’re bringing medication with you, some countries may require it to be in its original packaging and for you to show your prescription when you enter the country, so be sure to do your research about that.
Australians moving to South America will want to make sure you have your health insurance situation well and truly sorted before you leave Australia. If you will not be covered by or are unwilling to use the public health system, make sure you have international health insurance (like that offered by companies like Cigna Global) that will cover you to get treated in the private health system. If you’re not insured and end up needing private medical care, you could end up with a gigantic bill. If you plan on living in or visiting remote areas you should also consider cover for emergency evacuation.
Once you arrive
Food and water
As with any new experience, you’ll likely have an adjustment period when you first arrive in South America as you get used to the culture, climate and completely opposite time zone. Part of this process will be your stomach getting used to different bacteria in water and food. Many people will experience traveller’s diarrhea as they adjust, but it usually resolves itself within a few days and doesn’t pose any serious risk. In some parts of South America, tap water is completely safe to drink, and in others, it should be avoided at all costs, so be sure to research this about your new city before arrival. As is the case anywhere in the world, when eating out you should use your judgment and make sure your food is fresh and properly cooked. This is especially important to remember when trying street food, which is one of the most vibrant parts of the culture in many areas of South America, but also one of the most common culprits of tummy upsets.
Many parts of South America are very mountainous, so some people can experience altitude sickness when they first arrive. A lot of local people recommend chewing coca leaves to help alleviate the symptoms, but you should see a doctor if you are very unwell.
Getting medical care in South America
The standard of medical care and facilities in South America can be completely different from one city or country to the next, as the region is so huge and diverse. If you’re a resident or employed in your new country, you may be able to access the public health system. Generally speaking, you can expect public health facilities in South America to have less resources and be more crowded than you’re used to in Australia. Getting things done via the public system usually requires much more time and bureaucracy than in the private system (although obviously the same could be said for Australia). Most doctors in the public system won’t speak English.
In larger cities you can usually find very high quality private facilities, although they come at a cost. In the private system you’ll be much more likely to find doctors who have trained in English speaking countries and speak English. Some of the best ways to find these doctors are asking in expat Facebook groups, contacting the nearest Australian embassy or consulate, or speaking to your insurer.
When moving to South America as an expat, it’s important that you thoroughly research healthcare in your new country before arrival. Speaking to a travel doctor, buying essential medical items and making sure you have the appropriate insurance may not be the most exciting parts of moving overseas, but they are some of the most essential.
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