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Taking the Kids: Staying safe on vacation

By Eileen Ogintz, Tribune Content Agency on

Is it safe? That's the first question parents -- and grandparents -- ask when a teen wants to zip line on vacation, a tween tries the resort's bungee trampoline or a preschooler enters the "junior" water play area.

Is it safe to take kids to developing nations? To fly with babies when they haven't yet been vaccinated for measles? To let them swim in the ocean?

Yes, this summer we've been bombarded by worst-case scenarios -- fatal shark attacks in the Bahamas and Hawaii; unexplained tourists' deaths in the Dominican Republic, even a fatal flesh-eating bacterial infection contracted on a Florida beach. On July 7, a toddler fell to her death through an open window on a Royal Caribbean ship docked in Puerto Rico.

"Travelers shouldn't be more scared or worried, but they should do their research and evaluate what risks they feel willing to take," said LaShanta Sullivan, manager for travel assistance at Allianz Global Assistance. She notes that the travel insurance company has received about 300 claims related to trips to the Dominican Republic.

Remember these situations are not common. Take flesh-eating bacteria. "Flesh-eating bacteria (infections) are extremely rare," says Dr. Andrew Bernstein, a practicing pediatrician and spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. He also teaches at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "Showering after swimming in questionable water and getting any unusual rashes checked out by a pediatrician would both be good ideas," he suggests. Use waterproof adhesive bandages on any open cuts when swimming and immediately clean new cuts, other experts add.

Consider that mundane accidents and illnesses are more likely to derail a family trip -- an ear infection that prevents a flight; a broken leg, a grandparent's heart issue. That's where travel insurance can help. Many policies insure kids free, pick up costs their insurance doesn't and more important, facilitate needed care. (Figure the cost will be 4 percent to 6 percent of your trip, but a lot less than medical evacuation, which starts at $20,000, if evacuated by air ambulance.)

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Err on the side of caution, especially with young children, and seek medical care if a child gets sick on vacation, especially if "you have a bad feeling about what is going on," said Dr. Bernstein. If you can, call your pediatrician first, as they know your child best. But if you can't wait for a call back, head to the emergency room of a major hospital, if possible. "Walk-in clinics and independent urgent care clinics are often not equipped or experienced in how to deal with illness in children," he said.

On vacation, parents should be more concerned about water safety, sun protection, tick and mosquito exposure, bicycle helmets, and communicable diseases, Dr. Bernstein said, rather than rare incidents that grab headlines.

Drowning is the number one cause of injury-related deaths among children between 1 and four; African-American kids ages 5 to 14 are almost three times more likely to drown than Caucasian children, according to Safe Kids Worldwide, a nonprofit organization working to help families and communities keep kids safe from injuries.

Safe Kids reports that preventable injuries are the number one killer of kids in the United States, and that on vacation it is all the more important not to let your guard down. Insist that everyone in the family wear helmets when using bikes and scooters; insist everyone be safely buckled in age-appropriate safety seats in the car and that kids ride in the back seat until they are 13.

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