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From a health standpoint, Chile is one of the safer countries in which to travel. To be on the safe side, take the normal precautions you would traveling anywhere in South America.
In Santiago there are several large private clínicas, and many doctors can speak at least a bit of English. In most other large cities there are one or two private clinics where you can be seen quickly. Generally, hospitales (hospitals) or postas (centers for emergency first aid) are for those receiving free or heavily subsidized treatment, and they are often crowded with long lines of patients waiting to be seen. Altitude sickness—which causes shortness of breath, nausea, and splitting headaches—may be a problem in some areas of the North or hiking in the Andes. The best way to prevent puna is to ascend slowly and acclimate, spending at least one night at a lower altitude if possible. If symptoms persist, return to lower elevations. Over-the-counter medications to help prevent altitude sickness are available, and tea made from coca leaves may help. If you have high blood pressure and/or a history of heart trouble, you should check with your doctor before traveling to high altitudes.
When it comes to air quality, Santiago ranks as one of the most polluted cities in the world. The reason is that the city is surrounded by two mountain ranges that keep the pollutants from cars and other sources from dissipating. The pollution is worst in winter.
What to do? First and foremost, avoid strenuous outdoor exercise and the traffic-clogged streets when air-pollution levels are high. Santiago has a wonderful subway that will whisk you to almost anywhere you want to go. Spend your days in museums and other indoor attractions. And take advantage of the city's many parks.
Visitors seldom encounter problems with drinking the water in Chile. Almost all drinking water receives proper treatment and is unlikely to produce health problems. But its high mineral content—it's born in the Andes—can disagree with some people. In any case, a wide selection of still (sin gas) and sparkling (con gas) bottled waters is available.
Food preparation is strictly regulated by the government, so outbreaks of food-borne diseases are very rare. But use common sense. Don't risk restaurants where the hygiene is suspect or street vendors where the food is allowed to sit around at room temperature.
Although no vaccinations are required for entry into Chile, all travelers to Chile should get up-to-date tetanus, diphtheria, and measles boosters, and a hepatitis A inoculation is recommended. Children traveling to Chile should have current inoculations against mumps, rubella, and polio. Always check with your doctor before leaving.
If you have traveled to an area at risk for yellow fever transmission within five days before entering Chile, you may be asked to show proof that you have been vaccinated against the disease.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there's some risk of food-borne diseases such as hepatitis A and typhoid. There's no risk of contracting malaria, but a very limited risk of dengue fever, another insect-borne disease, on Easter Island. The best way to avoid insect-borne diseases is to prevent insect bites by wearing long pants and long-sleeve shirts and by using insect repellents with DEET. If you plan to visit remote regions or stay for more than six weeks, check with the CDC's International Travelers Hot Line.
The Hanta virus, a very serious respiratory disease, exists in Chile, particularly in rural areas where rats are found (long-tailed rats are the most common carriers). Pay particular attention to warnings in campgrounds, and make sure to keep camping areas as clean as possible.
There are occasional outbreaks of Vibrio parahemolyticus in Chile. The infection causes severe diarrhea and is caused by eating bad shellfish. You can consult www.mdtravelhealth.com for a country-by-country listing of health precautions that should be taken prior to travel.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (800/232–4636. www.cdc.gov/travel.)
World Health Organization (www.who.int.)
Mild cases of diarrhea may respond to Imodium (known generically as loperamide). Pepto Bismol is not available in Chile (though Maalox is), so pack some chewable tablets. Drink plenty of purified water or tea—chamomile (manzanilla in Spanish) is a soothing option. You will need to visit a farmacia (pharmacy) to purchase medications such as aspirina (aspirin), which are readily available.