When you move to China, it’s not only time to pack your suitcase and ship your belongings! You should also be prepared for common diseases and other health risks.
Start by getting the recommended vaccinations for China. Talk to your family doctor to check if you need a booster shot for your standard immunizations.
The necessary standard vaccinations for China include DPT (diphtheria, pertussis/whooping cough, and tetanus), polio, and MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella/German measles). Sometimes, doctors recommend a flu shot and immunization for chickenpox as well.
All travelers to China should get vaccinated for hepatitis A, too. If you are planning more than just a short trip, you should get some additional immunizations:
This is also a good opportunity to get a thorough medical check-up before you leave. Depending on your visa category, you may have to provide a health certificate anyway.
Ask the nearest Chinese Embassy or Consulate what exactly the health certificate entails. You could, for example, need to provide an ECG, a chest X-ray, an HIV test, and further blood tests.
If you need to take prescription medication, make sure you can import it without getting into a hassle. Prescription drugs should be clearly labelled and remain in their original packaging. Add a signed and dated letter from your doctor to certify that it’s just medication for your personal use. The same applies to syringes and needles if you need to bring some for medical reasons.
If you have any questions about import restrictions, don't forget to check out our article on Chinese customs regulations.
Since you’ll probably run out of medication while you are in China, make a list of the generic names and active ingredients for all your meds. This will help you to get a new prescription and avoid potential confusion if the same medication is sold under a different brand name in China.
Also, don’t forget your health kit and first aid supplies! The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention has a very detailed checklist for travelers’ health kits. However, you may want to adapt the list to your personal situation.
If you are going to live in Beijing, for instance, you won’t need any water purification tablets or medication to prevent altitude illness. Other items, like anti-malarial drugs, depend on the relative risk of catching such common diseases in China’s specific regions.
Dengue fever only occurs in some provinces, especially Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Hainan, and Yunnan. Malaria is mostly limited to rural areas of Anhui, Hainan, Henan, Hubei, Guizhou, Jiangsu, and Yunnan.
You can prevent dengue fever and malaria by protecting yourself from mosquito bites. Wear long-sleeved tops, long trousers or maxi-skirts, and socks during the day, and sleep under a mosquito net at night. Insect repellents that contain either DEET or oil of lemon eucalyptus are considered especially effective. Apply them to all exposed body parts.
According to WHO estimates, about 0.1% of China’s population is infected with HIV/AIDS. In the past, high-risk groups mostly included injecting drug users, men who have sex with men, and former blood donors. By now, heterosexual intercourse is the main reason for new infections. This affects especially sex workers and their clients.
Since China is still far from a full-blown epidemic, HIV/AIDS should not pose any major risk for the average expat. However, doctors strongly recommend practicing safe sex and using condoms. Moreover, expats should make sure that their health insurance policy covers access to high-profile private facilities in urban centers. Check with your doctor or dentist if they use sterilized equipment, and offer to pay for new syringes or needles, if necessary.
While SARS is no longer much of a risk, various strains of avian influenza are still common diseases in China and can potentially be dangerous. However, there hasn’t been any large-scale outbreak recently, so it shouldn’t be difficult to protect yourself.
Avoid all contact with poultry (e.g. at farmers’ markets), and only eat chicken, duck, or eggs after cooking them thoroughly. Don’t forget to wash your hands after food preparation!
For younger children, hand, foot and mouth disease (HMFD) is a widespread health risk. It normally causes a mild fever and the characteristic rash on some body parts.
HFMD is a viral disease that goes away on its own. Only in the rare event of complications will you need to call a doctor. Proper hand hygiene and keeping your children home from school for a couple of days often help to prevent an infection.
Outdoor enthusiasts should watch out! Schistosomiasis, also known as "snail fever", is a parasitic disease spread by worms living in infected freshwater. These parasites infest the urinary or gastrointestinal tract and cause chronic illnesses.
Schistosomiasis can be easily avoided by not bathing in any ponds, lakes, or rivers. Chlorinated swimming-pools are perfectly fine, of course.
Most urban dwellers are affected by air pollution. The air quality in metropolitan regions is rather bad. What is just a nuisance for most people, though, can become a danger for children, the elderly, and patients with cardiologic or respiratory diseases, allergies or skin conditions.
Even healthy adults should wear air masks on bad days, exercise indoors, and install air filters in their homes. Check the websites of the US Embassies and Consulates in China. They post regular updates on the local air quality.
In other parts of our expat guide, you'll find further safety advice for China.
Last but not least, you should know what to do in an emergency. Call 110 for the police and 119 for the fire department. Ambulance services are available via 120. However, emergency services in China don’t have a very good reputation.
If the patient is stable, it can be easier to call a cab and offer the driver a bit of cash to get you to hospital as quickly as possible. It also helps if you have a Chinese driving license and own a car.
If you have a chronic illness, are at risk for specific diseases, or have children, you should definitely get informed about local hospitals. Not all clinics have a pediatric unit, a 24/7 ER, or the specialist care you require. Find out which hospital actually offers these services and write down their address.
To prepare yourself and your family for a worst case scenario, you could enroll in a first-aid course before you move. Even if you barely speak any Chinese, it can be a tremendous help to learn some stock phrases for emergency situations.
Expats may also consider purchasing an International SOS membership. They have clinics in Beijing, Nanjing, Tianjin, and Shenzhen, and they provide air rescue services, as well as multilingual 24/7 helplines.
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