Kuala Lumpur is one of the safest cities in all of Asia and there is generally very little cause to worry whilst in town. It is wise, however, to take a few precautions regarding the few health risks in Kuala Lumpur that do exist and take the necessary measures such as inoculations to protect yourself from a few perennial ailments that tend to strike down travellers.
In general Malaysians are extremely friendly and hospitable people and only too happy to lend a hand should a visitor require assistance. That said, it is always wise to keep abreast of cultural differences and avoid causing offence.
With few exceptions health risks in Kuala Lumpur are nothing to be worried about and there are many first class hospitals available should you feel under the weather.
The vast majority of medical staff speak good English and are trained to Western standards. There are pharmacies that stay open late in most neighbourhoods and all the city’s General Hospitals will see foreigners for a token fee of 1RM. However, costs rise considerably if overnight stays or extensive treatment is required, so make sure to take out good quality medical insurance before leaving your home country.
Health in Kuala Lumpur
Avian influenza: Malaysia was the ninth Asian nation to have had a reported case of bird flu, although occurrences have faded and the country has declared itself free from this particular infection. It is not considered a major health risk in Kuala Lumpur and poultry is certainly safe to eat.
Dengue fever: this mosquito-carried disease is very prevalent in urban areas such as Kuala Lumpur. Previously known as ‘breakback fever’, symptoms include an aversion to sunlight and intense pain in the joints. When these symptoms subside, however, the real problems start as white blood cell and platelet counts plummet.
This leaves the victim open to secondary infections and bleeding. As there is no vaccination the only precaution is to use mosquito repellent and to cover up to avoid bites. If you suspect to have caught dengue then seek immediate medical attention as this health risk in KL can be deadly.
Swine flu (H1N1): the global swine flu outbreak has affected Malaysia to a small degree, with air crew placed into quarantine in May, 2009, and some fatalities. However, it has not been as badly troubled as many of its neighbours. Like the majority of the world, cases tend to affect the elderly and those with underlying health concerns. You will see plenty of people wearing masks around town, although their effectiveness has been questioned by health officials. Consult local media for updates on the current situation.
Dehydration: Kuala Lumpur is an extremely hot and humid city and one of the health risks in KL most commonly experienced by visitors is dehydration. The oppressive atmosphere is not helped by the closed walkways, traffic and ubiquitous air conditioning units blasting hot air onto the already sweltering streets.
Take care to carry enough water with you, avoid walking when the sun is at its highest and duck into shops regularly to get away from the pollution. If you feel unduly tired, have problems breathing or a very dry mouth then it may be wise to seek medical attention.
Diarrhoea/food: Even seasoned travellers may have problems adapting to the rich and spicy cuisine that Malaysia is so famous for. It is not usual to feel some gastric discomfort even if you only frequent the luxurious restaurant of your five star hotel, so it may be a little hasty to scream food poisoning straight away if you feel a little unwell. Of course, if you are on a budget and frequent roadside stalls then the possibilities of some unpleasant side effects increase exponentially.
These ailments normally fade over time as your body grows accustomed to the unusual diet, but anti-diarrhoea medication such as Immodium can be useful. Although, it is wise to only use these in an emergency (such as a long impending bus/train journey). Loose motions are the body’s way of getting rid of nasty bugs, and by blocking your system up more serious complications can sometimes result.
Drinking water: in Kuala Lumpur tap water is supposed to be drinkable, although if new in town it may be wise to stick to widely-available bottles varieties which are extremely cheap. Any water or ice you receive in a restaurant will always be safe for consumption and there are reverse osmosis purification machines scattered around residential areas.
Hepatitis: there are many strains of this disease which involves a swelling of the liver. Hep B is the most serious and is contracted through blood contact (dirty needles from drugs or backstreet tattooists) or sexual contact. Hep A is more common and slightly midler form but it is still wise to get vaccinated for both before leaving home.
HIV/STDS: Kuala Lumpur has its cases of HIV/AIDS but due to the rather conservative nature of Malaysian culture the problem is not as serious as the neighbouring countries to the north. Even so, as with anywhere, condom use is advisable and contraception is available from chemist stores and 7-elevens. Other conditions such as syphilis or gonorrhea are also out there so caution is advisable.
Hygiene: Although the city is extremely clean by Southeast Asian standards, there are some health risks in Kuala Lumpur associated with bad hygiene. If you notice a rat scurrying from the kitchen of the restaurant you are eating at, it may be wise not to return. That said, there is rarely much to worry about apart from the occasional stench from overflowing drains during a sudden downpour.
Malaria and mosquitos: there is no risk of malaria in Kuala Lumpur or the Malaysian Peninsula. But those travelling to Sarawak or farther afield should seek up-to-date medical advise regarding the appropriate medication to take before departure. Women should be warned that many prophylactic drugs (such as doxycycline) are antibiotics and reduce the effectiveness of the contraceptive pill.
Rabies: as an Islamic country, Malaysia doesn’t have the same ‘live and let live’ attitude to stray animals as Thailand for example and it is unusual to see unaccompanied dogs wandering the streets. However, if you do get bitten or scratched by a suspect animal it is crucial to seek medical attention immediately.
A pre-exposure inoculation is available to combat this fatal disease, however, should you be bitten a series of post-exposure shots is still necessary. It is also advisable to wash the wound in question out with spirit such as whiskey or rum at once.
Tattoo and piercing: if you want to indulge in a holiday memento it is important to ensure that the all the needles and instruments used are fresh from the packet or cleaned in front of you. If you have any doubt then look elsewhere as cases of Hepatitis B have been reported from unscrupulous parlours.
Tropical infections: if you get any cuts or scratches (especially from coral while swimming in the sea) it is important to make sure they are cleaned and allowed to dry out properly to avoid infection. Antiseptic lotions such as iodine or Betadine are widely available and very affective and great for combatting this particular health risk in Kuala Lumpur.