Sandra, a reader from Lexington who has a family member going to Brazil next month, wanted to know if any precautions should be taken before the trip.
"Can you advise on how to find out the relative safety of traveling in these cities," she asked (also requesting that her last name not be used). "Also, is there any way to get a sense of the health risks involved for these areas?"
These are questions that sensible travelers should ask themselves as they plan a trip to an unfamiliar destination. And they should be asked early in the planning process, so that answers can be found and, if necessary, acted upon.
In Sandra's case, the family member was going to fly with a large group to Sao Paolo and then catch a connecting flight to Florianopolis in the state of Santa Catarina in the southeastern corner of the country. After a brief stay there, the group plans to take a bus to Curitiba and then another bus to Porto Allegre before returning home.
The whole trip was arranged before Sandra had a chance to consider any health or safety issues, and she was starting to worry. "I didn't do my usual homework," she said.
A good place to start is the State Department. On its website, it typically has a consular information sheet on most countries that provides a country overview, entry requirements, and getting-around hints. The information sheet also addresses safety issues and has links to health information at the website of the Centers for Disease Control.
The problem with both websites is that they are fairly generic, attempting to sum up whole countries or even a region of several countries in a handful of sentences.
The consular information sheet on Brazil, for example, warns that crime is a big problem in larger cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and is on the rise everywhere.
"At airports, hotel lobbies, bus stations, and other public places there is much pickpocketing, and the theft of carry-on luggage, briefcases, and laptop computers is common," the the State Department warns. "Travelers should ''dress down' when outside and avoid carrying valuables or wearing jewelry or expensive watches."
The CDC information lumped Brazil with nine other countries in tropical South America. It discussed the dangers of malaria, yellow fever, hepatitis A, dengue fever, and diarrhea and offered a long list of dos and don'ts. Don't eat food purchased from street vendors and don't eat dairy products unless they have been pasteurized. Do bring along insect repellent, long-sleeved shirts, and over-the-counter diarrhea medicine.
For those who don't want to hunt for their travel information or prefer it a bit more customized, iJet may be the answer. The company, found at www.worldcuepro.com, charges $15 for more than 160 country-specific reports, and $25 for more customized health and safety information on as many as eight destinations per trip.
With the $25 service, called Worldcue Traveler, iJet will send alerts to the traveler or a family member via e-mail, cellphone pager, or PDA if an important health or security incident occurs during a trip.
The iJet report on Brazil noted there had been more than 270,000 cases of dengue fever in the country as of Dec. 1, with nearly twice as many in the northeast as the southeast. The report also said yellow fever was a lesser concern in eastern coastal areas, where Sandra's family member is going, than in northern and central areas.
The iJet report gave many of the same warnings about crime as the State Department and CDC websites, but added a special warning about Porto Allegre, saying the crime rate there is only moderately better than in Sao Paolo and Rio.
After reading about the health and safety risks in a particular country, travelers should make an appointment with a health professional to discuss any concerns and get any necessary shots.
Andrew Mackler, a registered nurse who is certified in travel medicine and works for Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, said he would probably encourage a traveler to Brazil to get immunized for yellow fever just to be on the safe side. He strongly recommended immunization for hepatitis A, a tetanus update, and, if the vaccine was available, maybe even a flu shot for the long flight to Brazil.
He also offered a host of common-sense suggestions, including protecting against dengue fever by buying and using insect repellent with at least 20 percent Deet, and swimming in ocean water rather than fresh water because of the risk of parasites.
Mackler said travelers to Brazil should be careful about what they eat and drink and do for fun. He said don't drink the water -- don't even brush your teeth with it; stay out of tattoo parlors; and use a condom if you are sexually active.
Between crime and dengue fever, Sandra was getting nervous, but she was also getting a better sense of the risks involved.
Mackler said travelers have to put into perspective all the warnings about what could happen on a trip. Most foreign travel carries some risks, he said, but taking precautions and knowing the risks before leaving usually can help ensure a safe and fun trip.
"After all," he said, "we take our chances crossing Brookline Avenue every day."
Bruce Mohl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.