Malaysia is an extremely safe country with few dangers or health risks to worry about generally. Like anywhere, however, it is possible to become ill especially if visitors are unused to the climate and diet. It is important to take all possible precautions such as inoculations to ensure you are protected from the few ailments which travellers tend to fall foul of.
Malaysians are in general extremely friendly people and always hospitable towards travellers who may require assistance of some sort. However, keeping abreast of cultural differences is always wise as it can be easy to cause offence when you don’t know particular customs.
Health in Kuala Lumpur
Dengue fever: this nasty mosquito-carried disease is found in Malaysia and is especially prevalent in urban areas including Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Previously dubbed ‘breakback fever’, symptoms include intense pain in the joints and an aversion to sunlight. As there is currently no vaccination available the only precaution available to travellers is mosquito repellent and to avoid being bitten. If you suspect you have dengue then it is important to seek immediate medical attention.
Avian influenza: despite being the ninth Asian nation with a reported case of bird flu, Malaysia is fairly safe from the disease and occurrences have faded in the country in recent times. Poultry is certainly safe to eat in Malaysia and delicious.
Swine flu (H1N1): although there have been some Malaysian fatalities during the global outbreak of swine flu, the country is not overly affected and cases have died down considerably as of late. Remaining cases normally involve the elderly and people with underlying health issues so unless you fall into these groups you generally have no reason for concern.
Dehydration: the temperature in Malaysia varies between sweltering and blistering heat with only a little respite up in the higher altitudes. Dehydration, therefore is a major concern so visitors should take every possible care to drink plenty of water and re-hydration salts in case of vomiting or diarrhoea. Bottled water can be found all over Malaysia although tap water is fine to drink in the larger cities, but perhaps ask local advice first.
Diarrhoea/food: everyone, even seasoned travellers, can have difficulties adapting to spicy rich food that Malaysians love so dearly. Even business travellers who wash their hands thoroughly and eat in corporate banquets can feel a little unwell, but it is perhaps unwise to scream food poisoning straight away. That said, budget travellers frequenting streetside stalls are exponentially more likely to come down with something so exercise caution.
As a general rule, if a place is packed with locals then it is likely to be OK. Anti-diarrhoea medication such as Immodium is very useful if planning a long bus journey but avoid taking it unless absolutely necessary. Loose motions are the body’s own way of ridding itself of infection and complications can arise if these are blocked.
Hepatitis: this disease involves swelling of the liver and comes in many different forms. Hep B is undoubtedly the most serious and contracted through blood contact such as dirty needles, unscrupulous tattooists or sexual intercourse. Hep A is slightly milder and more common but as vaccinations for both are readily available it makes sense to get protected against both before boarding your plane.
Drinking water: tap water in most of urban Malaysia is safe to drink although there can be issues in more rural areas. Bottled drinking water is cheap and widely available so if only in the country for a short time it is perhaps wise not to take the risk. Ice and water served in restaurants is always safe to drink.
HIV/AIDS: cases of HIV and AIDS are on the increase in Malaysia although due to the rather conservative nature of Islamic society it is not a major epidemic. Even so, condom use is always advisable with contraception cheaply available from pharmacies and convenience stores.
Hygiene: despite Malaysia generally being much cleaner than other countries in Southeast Asia, there may be some health risk for those who don’t practice good hygiene. Rats and other vermin can be found near rubbish dumps and should you spot them near the kitchen of a restaurant it may be wise to give it a miss. Overflowing drains during sudden downpours can cause a stench and be hazardous if wearing sandals.
Malaria and mosquitoes: although there is no real risk of catching malaria in the big urban areas such as Kuala Lumpur, those travelling to farther afield to Sarawak should be careful to get the appropriate prophylactic drugs. These change periodically so it is important to seek up-to-date medical advise before travelling, and perhaps start the course a few weeks before departure. Female travellers should be aware that some anti-malarial medications (including doxycycline) are antibiotics and can drastically reduce the effectiveness of contraceptive pills.
Rabies: Malaysia is an Islamic country and doesn’t share the same Buddhist ‘live and let live’ attitude that Thailand does. For this reason stray dogs are not as common and instances of rabies are kept under control. If you do get bitten or scratched by a suspect animal, however, make sure you wash the wound immediately with spirit-strength alcohol and seek medical treatment. There is a vaccine available for rabies which is well worth considering.
Tattoo and piercing: Hepatitis B is a major health risk from unscrupulous tattoo parlours in Malaysia who may attempt to save costs by re-using needles and instruments. Make sure that if you do get a small memento from your trip that you see the artist open a fresh packet of needles in front of you. If in doubt, it’s better to head elsewhere.
Tropical infections: Scratches or cuts should be treated and allowed to thoroughly dry out, especially when they have been received while swimming from coral. Iodine or Betadine antiseptic lotions as are available commonly in malls and high streets all over Malaysia and don’t cost the earth.