Central & South America / Chronological / Destinations / Writers' Tips

South America—What a Pain in the Arm

A cautious traveller knows what a pain it can be to venture to South America, particularly the pain in your arm (and hip pocket) after a visit to your local travel vaccination clinic.

I mentioned an upcoming trip to Peru and Chile to my uncle, a doctor and well-seasoned traveller. His cautious reply prompted my visit to the clinic. “South America, mmm, very dangerous…medically,” he warned.

Thanks for that, Old Boy.

I know I’m about to be jabbed in the left arm with several live virus vaccines, but that’s not what worries me as I enter the clinic. I also know my medical naiveté will cause me to become a victim of the up-sell. I’ve been here before.

“Ah, South America,” the doctor begins his sales spiel, practically rubbing his hands together at the thought of a big sale.

“You’ll need polio, typhoid, cholera, measles, mumps and rubella; a tetanus shot and, naturally, we’ll need to complete your Hep A course. Then, you’ll need Yellow Fever because they won’t let you back into this country without it.”


“Now, I want to talk to you about Hep B,” he continues, asking a series of personal questions to ascertain my risk level.

Satisfied that my travels and personal habits won’t expose me to any undue risk, I get a reprieve on that one (that’s one less hole in the arm).

Together, we work through the shopping list and sort out what’s absolutely necessary.

My consultation then takes the form of a lecture. “Don’t drink alcohol on the flight; don’t eat food unless you peel it, cook it or open it; don’t drink the water; wear shoes at all times; don’t let animals bite you; slowly acclimatise yourself to the altitude (at least he didn’t say, “acclimate,” as the Americans love to say!). You’ll need sleeping pills, altitude sickness pills, antibiotics, insect repellent; and pills for constipation, diarrhea, nausea, headaches, and blah, blah, blah. My shopping cart was getting full.

“Doctor, I’m only going for nine days, and I’m staying in fine hotels.”

On that news, he eases off a bit but warns me about the possible side effects of the drugs he’s about to administer: “Rare cases can result in hives, swollen lips, severe headaches, heart problems and, oh yes, in very few cases, death.”

Oo-kay, thanks.

Defeated and convinced I’ll die from all the perils of travel; I offer my left arm and take it like a man. One, two, three, four and five. The only visible signs of my purchase are five little round Band-Aids on my upper arm. They look like the Olympic rings, only flesh-colored.

I’m now told to wait in the waiting room for the possible onset of the side effects from the Yellow Fever vaccine. “We need to make you wait for half an hour to see if we have to administer adrenalin, but that’s rare, very rare”.

Thanks again.

Ten minutes pass, 20, and then 30. My time’s up and I’m still alive! I walk to reception, or more correctly, the checkout, with my literature, tropical-strength repellent, vaccination certificates, five little round Band-Aids and a small bag of assorted pills. I’m politely relieved of $420.00.

“Thank you, see you again and have a good trip!”

It’s a good thing that all the vaccine injections are intra-muscular and given in the arm. Bearing the bum for five shots would really prove the premise of exotic travel being a right pain in the…ask me again after my next “perilous” trip.


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