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Health Tips for Olympics Travelers from UB's Richard Lee, M.D.

By Lois Baker

Release Date: July 23, 2008

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Richard Lee offers health tips to travelers headed to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Attendees at the 2008 Olympics a half-a-world away, Aug. 8-24, will experience a cultural jolt and may have some concerns about their health. Richard Lee, M.D., University at Buffalo professor of medicine, is a specialist in geographic medicine and travels frequently to China. He returned from there recently and in the following Q&A offers suggestions for international travelers headed for Beijing.

Q. Do I need special immunizations to go to China?

A. If you are going only to Beijing, you need the basic ones -- rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, polio. Hepatitis A -- infectious hepatitis -- is still a problem all over China, so no raw oysters or clams. If traveling beyond Beijing into the countryside, you should be immunized against typhoid and hepatitis B.

Q. Can I drink the water?

A. Tap water isn't safe. Buy good bottled water. Showering and bathing with tap water is OK, and brushing teeth, but no swallowing.

Q. Should bird flu be a concern for people attending the Olympics, or is it a problem only in the countryside?

A. Avian Flu H5N1 is still a problem in China -- mostly in the south where it has become embedded in the poultry. It is not a big risk in Beijing, but I would advise visitors to be wary about "wet markets" where birds and animals -- and people -- are jammed together, cheek by jowl. My advice is to not touch birds, or uncooked bird flesh, or play with the cats that prowl these markets (cats can carry the H5N1 virus).

Q. Chinese food is delicious, but are there ingredients to be wary of ?

A. The Chinese cook food well, including street food, so if it's cooked in front of you and it's hot, it's OK. Fruit on the street? You don't know where it's been, but if it is unpeeled, it's OK. Be cautious about salads. They probably are OK at a 5-star hotel, but I'd rather eat stir-fried vegetables.

Q. I've heard the Chinese are fond of dog meat.

A. Dog meat is off the menu during the Olympics, because people from outside China are offended, so you don't have to worry about that, but there are cat specialty restaurants. Speaking of dogs, there are lots of feral dogs and rabies is a problem. You can't cozy-up to a dog. If one approaches you, pick up a rock or a stick.

Q. News stories about Beijing's air quality are scary. Is the air that bad?

A. The air quality can be awful. Sometimes there is a bright sunny day, but the smog can be pretty bad. Indoor air is just as bad, or worse. Tobacco still has a grip on China, and there are few limitations on where people can smoke. If you have respiratory problems requiring oxygen, don't go.

Q. China being a totalitarian state, do attendees need to be careful what they say or do?

A. There will be rules about rowdy behavior, nationalistic flags, banners, chants, etc., so entry to Olympic events will be carefully policed. Be prepared to be bossed around. There will be strict rules about what you can take on the subway and into the stadium. You will want to follow the rules: A Chinese pokey is not noted for its luxury. Other than that, there is little street crime and Beijing generally is a pretty safe place. You can walk on the streets at night without worry.

Q. What do you think visitors will find most surprising about Beijing?

A. China has become fashion conscious! Elegant dress and trendy dress are common. There are lots of expensive shops, but the antique open air market and the Pearl Markets are fun, crowded and less expensive. Bargaining is a necessity, and expected. Chinese pharmacies of traditional medicine are also something to observe. And if visitors do get sick, health care in Beijing can be superb. Many of the specialty hospitals have UK, U.S. and European Union-trained doctors and, with the burst in capital, Beijing has state of the art imaging and technology.

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