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Feb 24 -> Chinese Needle Torture

Travel can be very tough on the body, and we wanted to do everything we could to look after our health. This led us to the Travel Doctor, a Sydney clinic whose sole business is the protection of travelers from all manners of afflictions - from diarrhea to Japanese encephalitis. The large number of Australian backpackers and backpackers visiting Australia ensures a steady stream of business.

Would-be travelers come to the Travel Doctor to get multiple inoculations, buy malarial pills and first aid kits. A huge world map spreads across one wall, which someone is always staring at dreamily. A variety of mosquito nets and insect repellent are on sale, as well as Lonely Planet guidebooks. Framed photos of exotic-looking people in exotic-looking places adorn other walls. There is an excitement about the place. If you are at the Travel Doctor, you are going somewhere!

Our initial consultation was with Dr. Chiu, a Chinese-Australian of (I gathered) Cantonese origin. He was as knowledgeable as he was dramatic. He described horrifying symptoms with something bordering on glee, fixed us with a serious gaze when discussing the arguments against certain inoculations, and adopted a detached expression when describing the impact of taking certain medication on the effectiveness of birth control pills.

A large atlas lay open at the front of his desk. As we rattled off the itinerary, he would masterfully flip to the correct page, stabbing particularly virulent countries with his fingers. “There is a serious risk of yellow fever here!” or “You’ll be fine if you stay in the big cities. But in the country, major malaria risk!” This was clearly his favorite part of the initial consultation. In each case, he would jot down the disease that we needed protection against. He gave a snort and jotted something down when we mentioned Papua New Guinea, and began scribbling wildly when we got to India. When our itinerary got to the West Africa nations, however, he set down his pen. “I think maybe we’ll just give you everything!”

Lucky for us, we had started thinking about the inoculations early. Dr. Chiu planned a detailed schedule of tests, shots, and further consultations that spread over more than four months. Multiple live vaccines cannot be administered at the same time, certain vaccines were not immediately available in Australia, other vaccines are only effective for a short amount of time; these had to be taken closer to our departure date. The logistics were daunting, but Dr. Chui had done it a thousand times.

Health is the primary but not only reason to visit the Travel Doctor. Many countries, particularly in Africa, require proof of yellow fever inoculation at border posts. Travelers who arrive at the border sans certificate of vaccination could be turned away completely, or at the very least are forced to bribe their way in with hard currency. In this way, the shots protect against both diseases and extortion. Another racket has to do with proof of cholera vaccination, which from time to time has been required in certain countries, but is no longer required in any country today. In fact, the cholera vaccine has been proven ineffective - so what’s the point?

However, imagine the uninformed (and un-vaccinated) traveler arriving at a dilapidated West African border post. He has his visa, he shows his yellow fever certificate. The guard looks unimpressed and continues to flip through the traveler’s inoculation book. “Where is your cholera certificate?” he demands in French. After much argument, the traveler parts with US$20, only to learn later of the border guard’s ruse. Thankfully, the Travel Doctor staff was prepared for such a scam. Although we had never received the cholera inoculation, we were given a large official-looking (but bogus) stamp in our books that read “Cholera” and “Non Datum Est”- Latin for something like “this means nothing” - enough to fool dishonest border guards.

During 6 separate visits to the Travel Doctor, we received more than a dozen shots. The Aussies call them ‘jabs.’ Both names are appropriately unpleasant. We were getting 2-3 shots per visit, and often had to wait in the doctor’s office for thirty minutes just in case one of the life-saving inoculations made us faint or stop breathing.

In total we spent around A$1,200 (US$700) on inoculations, malaria pills and a first-aid kit. Though expensive, it was well worth it. We left the Travel Doctor feeling invincible - at least against bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. If only science could develop a vaccine against larger threats - runaway trains, thieves, and earthquakes - travel might be a less dangerous proposition.