Doctor's Rx for travel: lots of information


April 27, 2007|By Janet Gilbert | Janet Gilbert,Special to the Sun

There are travelers, and then there are adventurers.

Ellicott City resident Michael P. Zimring is definitely the latter.

"I want to be on a small boat, not a big one," he said. "I want to be in jeans and boots, not a tuxedo. And I want to eat healthy food, not the junk - the cakes and the ice cream and all that stuff they serve you on cruise ships."

How serendipitous that Zimring focuses on such travelers in his profession as internist and medical director of the Center for Wilderness and Travel Medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

Zimring has more than 30 years experience in private practice.

"The reason I became an internist is because I could do all facets of medicine," he said. "This [focus on travel medicine] just adds more to it. It's more fun."

In the early 1990s, Zimring became interested in wilderness medicine. He began taking courses and signing up for educational sessions "in interesting places, like Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona," he said.

About five years ago, he started to focus on the international and wilderness traveler in his practice.

"You know, we're not an isolated city, we're a world community," said Zimring, who has lived in Howard County with his wife, Penny, for 18 years. "I like helping the kind of people who are doing missionary work in an undeveloped country - adventurous people, risk-takers. It's a nice break in the routine of medicine."

Zimring sees his primary role as that of an educator. "A physician's job is not just to treat illness, but to teach people to treat themselves. You have to be a teacher," he said.

"As we have all learned from the Katrina disaster, you have to be able to help yourself," he added.

To that end, Zimring has written a book, Healthy Travel, with Lisa Iannucci. The slim volume covers everything from reducing the risk of developing blood clots while on an airplane to treating traveler's diarrhea, preventing identity theft, and evaluating necessary vaccinations.

"Every traveler should be informed. I mean, you do not need a yellow fever vaccine if you're going to travel to China," he said. "That's an unnecessary shot, and a shot has a risk."

Zimring evaluates travelers at his Baltimore office, and said one benefit is his close connection with the hospital. Mercy Medical specialists in areas such as infectious disease, pulmonary medicine, dermatology, and orthopaedics, are readily available. And Zimring has years of experience treating serious illnesses like Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and malaria.

"People don't realize it [malaria] is one of the biggest killers out there. Millions die from it in Africa," he said. "With a change of climate, we might see more of these diseases in the U.S."

Zimring's said he gets to know the traveler as an individual. He takes a full medical history, then goes over the patient's immunization status and discusses any allergies. Next, he looks at the destination or destinations in order of the itinerary, and puts together a plan that includes the necessary vaccinations as well as information on how the traveler can protect him or herself from illness and injury on the trip.

Will you be scuba diving? Traveling to high altitudes? Will you be staying at a four-star hotel or in a tent? Eating in the hotel, or from a street vendor's cart? Zimring, who admits he loves a challenge, tries to discern the type of traveler you are.

Zimring gave an example of how taking the time to know the individual traveler helps with his recommendations. "Most places will recommend a rabies vaccine if you're working with animals," he said. "But say you are traveling to an area that's highly endemic for rabies. I learn that you are a runner, who likes to get up every morning at five or six and take a run in South America. You might have dogs chasing you - some countries do not require rabies vaccinations the way we do."

Zimring said, some hospitals in developing countries are like hospitals of the 1940s or 1950s here. "I don't want to single out a country," said Zimring, "but let me say that quite often, in a developing country, sometimes it's better just to get you out [if you are injured or ill]."

Conveniently, Zimring is MEDEX physician adviser, a worldwide travel assistance and insurance company that can coordinate medical care or evacuate a traveler if necessary. Zimring said that while it doesn't happen often, if you are seriously injured or ill abroad, you will be glad to have the protection.

The wealth of knowledge Zimring brings to the subject isn't meant to deter worldwide wanderers - after all, Zimring himself is passionate about travel. But he will tell pregnant women not to scuba dive, and people with chronic lung disease not to seek high-altitude vacations.

"I'm not here to make people happy - I'm here to keep people alive," he said.

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