Traveling to Southeast Asia? Be Aware of These Infectious Diseases

By Mark Wiens 19 Comments
Southeast Asian Diseases
Southeast Asian Diseases

Guest Post: Today’s guest post is by Mei, a good blogging friend of mine who is a pharmacist from Malaysia, a serious foodie, and an expert on health and fitness. She runs and Cikipedia.

Mark’s Note: This article is not meant to scare anyone, but just to make everyone aware of potential diseases from certain symptoms. Diseases and infections are possible anywhere in this world, wherever you go, even at home – so there’s no reason to worry, but to just be aware. Southeast Asia by the way, has some of the most high-tech modern hospital facilities in the world.

Over to Mei…

Southeast Asia is one of the more popular travel destinations for people especially those living in the West.

The exotic lure of the heat and the beautiful beaches and dive spots of the tropics is really what puts South East Asia on the map for “must travel to” places.

However while traveling in Southeast Asia, unknown to many, is also a hotspot for emerging infectious diseases, including those with pandemic potential.

Southeast Asia is defined as the ten member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a region with growing geopolitical influence in view of Asia’s global economic ascendancy. The ASEAN countries are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The recent emergence of a new strain (H5N1) of influenza A virus, the avian or bird flu, and the earlier outbreak of SARS, is proof of the fact that Asia might be the epicenter not only for influenza A viruses, but also for other contagious diseases.

In late 1992, Vibrio cholerae 0139 appeared on the Indian subcontinent and in a short span of time, it had spread to neighbouring countries. If you’re travelling to Southeast Asia, and planning to stay there long term, it’s good to know a little about the history of infectious diseases that have plagued this area of the world, just so you can take precautionary measures with your own health.

photo credit – topnews [dot] in

Some of the major emerging infections are as follows:-


These viruses are generally mild and you might not even know that you’re infected. More severe forms of it cause infection of the central nervous system, resulting in aseptic meningitis and (rarely) paralysis; polioviruses.

Hand, foot, and mouth diseases, caused by enteroviruses, such as coxsackie A16 and entrovirus 71, is common in many countries in the region. Enteroviruses are normally associated with the hot and humid climate of tropical countries and is common even in my country Malaysia. There are many great night markets and places to visit for food but sometimes it’s best to err on the side of caution, especially if you don’t have the immunity or antibodies that the locals have.

Enteroviruses affect millions of people worldwide each year, and are often found in the respiratory secretions (e.g., saliva, sputum, or nasal mucus) and stool of an infected person.


Dengue is very common in the tropics, even in my country Malaysia.

It manifests as high fever and a rash that breaks out all over the body. Dengue fever is a disease caused by a family of viruses that are transmitted by mosquitoes. Other symptoms include headache, fever, exhaustion, severe joint and muscle pain and swollen glands (lymphadenopathy). The presence (the “dengue triad”) of fever, rash, and headache (and other pains) is particularly characteristic of dengue fever.

If you have this – best to check into the nearest hospital immediately to do a white blood count (characteristically low platelet and white blood cell count in dengue). The haemorrhagic form of dengue fever, the dengue haemorrhagic fever (DHF), was recognized as a new disease in the Philippines in 1953 and has been seen in India, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka.

The rise of dengue in tropical parts of the world is due to rapid population growth, expanding urbanization, inadequate municipal water supplies, and difficulties in refuse disposal. These lead to an abundance of new breeding sites for the mosquito vectors, while human migration patterns disperse vectors and viruses into new areas.

Chikungunya Virus

Chikungunya is an insect-borne virus, of the genus Alphavirus, that is transmitted to humans by virus-carrying Aedes mosquitoes.

Chikungunya virus was relatively common in southern and south-eastern Asia in the 60’s. After causing outbreaks in India, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, it all but disappeared, and sporadic cases continued in Burma, Thailand even into the 80’s.

In addition, the virus spread into Indonesia for the first time from 1982 to 1985. Outbreaks occurred in Thailand in 1995 and Malaysia in 1998 to 1999.

Emerging Zoonotic Viruses

A zoonosis is any infectious disease that can be transmitted between species, i.e. from animals to humans or from humans to animals (the latter is sometimes called reverse zoonosis or anthroponosis).

A number of viruses have emerged from fruit bats (flying foxes), particularly members of the genus Pteropus, over the past 10 years. These include the Hendra and Nipah viruses.

Nipah Virus

This epidemic happened in my own backyard. A major outbreak of disease in pigs and humans from September 1998 to April 1999 resulted in 265 infected persons, 105 of whom died, and the eventual destruction of about 1.1 million pigs, in Malaysia.

The predominant clinical syndrome in humans was encephalitis which manifested symptoms such as fever, headache, drowsiness, and disorientation, and if you are unlucky, coma. Most infected persons had a history of direct contact with live pigs, and most were pig farmers. But still the virus managed to get out of hand when crossed over from farms, farmers to the average person on the street. In the end, millions of pigs had to be culled to stop the spread of the disease.

Conclusion – Precaution

In the course of long term travel to Southeast asia, it is inevitable that one might end up in an area with an outbreak, especially of one is planning to stay there long term.

However it’s good to know a little about the signs and symptoms of infectious diseases in your region, just so you can take precautionary measures with your own health.

If you have any suspicious symptoms such as fever, rash and headache, do not procrastinate – check yourself into the nearest hospital immediately. This could mean the difference between life and death.

About the Guest Writer:

P2024671Cikipedia is about Ciki, a 30-something pharmacist, who looks like a 20-something (Don’t believe us? Ask her friends!) Though she studied conventional medicine, she has a keen interest in alternative forms of treatment and medication that she believes are essential to the well-being of the human body. We cannot reverse time, but we sure can slow down the aging process! Cikipedia is a health, fitness and travel blog. Follow this blog and learn Ciki’s personal routines on how she stays fit, energetic and young at heart. Follow her on Twitter too!

In her spare time, Ciki writes for her Food and Travel blog too, CCFoodTravel.

19 comments. I'd love to hear from you!

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  • Vishal Kaushik

    4 years ago


  • Vishal Kaushik

    4 years ago

    Keep going.

  • Vishal Kaushik

    4 years ago

    Great job.✌✌

  • Vishal Kaushik

    4 years ago

    Good Work.

  • Vishal Kaushik

    4 years ago

    I appreciate your work. Good luck.

  • poo bear

    5 years ago

    Got sick in Thailand and Cambodia. Both very bad. Its no joke.

  • jen laceda

    12 years ago

    Hi, Mei and Mark!
    I lived in the Philippines before, so I understand firsthand the importance of being aware of these potentially harmful diseases. My cousin went to a fishing village in Malaysia (near Singapore where she lived) last October – so I guess that was rainy season? When she got back to Singapore, she started running a fever and vomitting. Turned out to be dengue! Good thing she checked into a Singapore hospital right away! Apparently, there are no antibiotics or medication for dengue, so she just had to “ride it out!” She had no idea it was dengue, so it was really a good thing she went to the hospital within a day or two!

    But yes, in the Philippines, there is some kind of dengue that can kill! It’s usually in the countryside though, where it’s less sanitary and they have no access to healthcare!

    Wonderful post, Mei!

    • Mark Wiens

      12 years ago

      Thanks for sharing Jen. I have seen some friends that had dengue fever as well, and it’s definitely a terrible terrible virus – basically out of commission of commission for a couple months. Good thing your cousin was got medical care fast.

  • Peter Lee

    12 years ago

    There is always a risk of falling sick while traveling but if we take precautions and eat hygienic food, then there is nothing to worry. Singapore is one of the South Eat Asian countries where you can find complete hygiene and clean streets. A visit to Singapore is a must to have a look. Apply for a Singapore Visa and you will come to know the ground reality.

  • Shalu Sharma

    12 years ago

    I think there is a always a huge risk in eating meat. Perhaps its a good idea to go vegetarian when travelling in the South East but then you miss out on the lovely food these countries have to offer.

    • Mark Wiens

      12 years ago

      Hey Shalu, yah, it can be a risk, but I guess it’s a risk I (and many others) are willing to take – it’s just worth to enjoy some things even with a risk. But that being said, I know being an vegetarian in India is probably the best place in the world for vegetarians!

  • Daniel McBane

    12 years ago

    I remember many years ago before I first went to SE Asia, I read some of the warnings on the CDC website–they really do consider the absolute worst case scenarios. I learned very quickly not to pay too much attention or I would end up spending the rest of my life inside a sterile bubble.

    • Mark Wiens

      12 years ago

      You’re right about that Daniel! And the fact of the matter is, one can get sick anywhere in the world, so it’s best to not worry, keep going, and just to monitor yourself if you have some symptoms.

    • ciki

      12 years ago

      I agree! Like I said, I never fell sick and we had the worst case of Nipah in our backyard so.. but u know, we need to count our blessings that we never fall sick coz these super strains are emerging every other month.

  • sully86

    12 years ago

    mark: mark thanks…geezz

  • Arti

    12 years ago

    A nice post warning about the potential threats. But reading all this can scare a traveller!!

    • ciki

      12 years ago

      LOL, sorry not meant to scare but I live in SEA and deal with these outbreaks from time to time. Am still standing so… !

    • Mark Wiens

      12 years ago

      Thanks Arti! I can be frightening, but good to know, in order to get help beforehand!