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Travel Guide > Australia & Oceania > Australia

Australia Health & Safety

  
 
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Skin

Exposure to the sun at Australian latitudes frequently results in sunburn. Getting sunburnt on your first day in Australia can be painful, can make you feel unwell, and really ruin your plans to spend more time in the pool or at the beach.

Wear sunscreen (SPF 30+), clothing, and a hat to shade the sun. Reapply sunscreen every 2-3 hours throughout the day - it wears off quickly if you are sweating or swimming. UV radiation in the middle of the day can be double what it is in the early morning or later afternoon. Avoid the sun during the hottest part of the day. Daily UV forecasts are issued by the Bureau of Meteorology and are available online

Umbrellas for hire and man made shade structures are rare on Australian beaches, but you can buy a sun-tent for less than $20 from discount and hardware stores.

Food Preparation

Australia's cleanliness standards are high. Restaurants are required to observe strict food preparation standards and food poisoning is no more common than it is in other first world nations.

Water

The tap water in Australia is almost always safe to drink, and it will be marked on the tap if this is not the case. The taste and hardness of the tap water will vary considerably across the country. Bottled water is also widely available. Carrying water on hot days is a good idea in urban areas, and it is a necessity if hiking or driving out of town.

Vaccinations

Australia does not have endemic communicable diseases that will require non-standard vaccinations. Like many other countries, it will require evidence of yellow fever vaccinations on entry if you will have been in a country with a risk of infection within 6 days before your arrival in Australia.

Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes are present all year round in the tropics, and during the summer in southern areas. Screens on windows and doors are common, and repellent is readily available. Ross River Virus is spread by mosquitoes in the tropics, and can make you sick for a few weeks. There have been cases of dengue fever. Malaria is not present in Australia.

Medical care

As described above, 000 is the Australian emergency services number and in any medical emergency you should call this number and ask for an ambulance and other emergency services as necessary, to attend.

Australia has first world medical standards. In particular, it is safe to receive blood transfusions in Australia, as donors are screened for HIV, hepatitis and many other blood borne illnesses.

However, since Australia's population density is low, parts of Australia are a long way from medical facilities of any kind. Towns with population 5000 or more will have a small hospital capable of giving emergency treatment in serious emergencies, and larger towns will have a base hospital capable of routine and some kinds of emergency surgery. In severe cases, particularly any kind of injury requiring microsurgery, you will need to be evacuated to one of the capital cities for treatment. Evacuation procedures are well established and normally involve being evacuated by plane or helicopter.

Capital cities will have medical centres where you can drop in, often open on weekends or until late. In country towns you may have to make an appointment, and may have no alternative other than the closest hospital after hours and weekends. You can also expect to wait a few hours if your condition isn't urgent.

Australian citizens and permanent residents who live in the country can receive health care through the taxpayer funded Medicare.

Travellers from New Zealand, Ireland, United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, Italy, Malta and Norway are entitled to free reciprocal Medicare treatment for medical problems that occur during their visit, but should familiarise themselves with the conditions of the reciprocal arrangement. For example Irish and New Zealanders are only entitled to free treatment at a hospital, whereas the other reciprocal nationalities are entitled to subsidised treatment at general practitioners as well. No reciprocal programs cover private hospitals, and the full cost will have to be met. Consider travel insurance. If not a citizen or permanent resident of a reciprocal country, you can expect to pay around $60 to see a general practitioner, plus any additional costs for any pathology or radiology required. The charge to pay to visit a local hospital can be much more expensive, private hospitals even more so, up to $500 even if you are not admitted, and thousands if you are.

  • Poisons Information Hotline 13 11 26. Will give free advice if any medication or poisons is taken inadvertently. Will also give advice on what treatment is necessary for things like a spider bite.

Emergencies

The number 000 (called 'triple zero' or 'triple oh') can be dialled from any telephone in Australia free of charge. This number will connect you with emergency operators for the police, fire brigade, and ambulance service. The first question that the operator will ask is which service you need. I

If you require assistance during a flood, storm, cyclone, tsunami, earthquake or other natural disaster you can contact the State Emergency Service in each state (except for Northern Territory) on 132 500. You will be connected with your local unit and help can be organised from there. Note that if the emergency is life-threatening, call triple zero.

If you want to contact these services but the situation is not an emergency, don't call 000 -- you can call the police assistance line on 131 444. Poisons information advice, who can also advise on snake, spider and insect bites, is available on 131 126. Information on locating the nearest medical services can be obtained by calling 1800 022 222 (except for Tasmania).

You can dial 000 from all mobile phones. Mobile phones sold in Australia recognise it as the emergency number and will use any available network to place the call. However, if you have a phone obtained outside Australia, using the universal emergency number 112 is a better idea. Using 112 will use any available network, will work even if your phone is not roaming, and will work even if the phone does not have a SIM. 112 works from Australian purchased phones too.

Hearing or speech impaired people with TTY equipment can dial 106. Those with Internet connectivity can use the Internet Relay Service, via the website

Calls from fixed line (landline) phones may be traced in order to assist the emergency services to reach you. The emergency services have limited ability to trace the origin of emergency calls from mobile phones, especially outside of urban areas, so be sure to calmly and clearly provide details of your location. Because of the number sequence for emergency calls, around 60% of calls to the emergency numbers are made in error. Nobody will likely respond to your call unless you can effectively communicate to the operator that you need assistance. If you are in need of assistance, but cannot speak, you will be diverted to a IVR and asked to press 55 to confirm that you are in need of assistance and have not called by accident. Your call will then be connected to the police.

Emergency numbers from other countries (for example, '911' in the USA) do not work in Australia. '112' will not work from a landline phone.

Take care on the roads

Keep a sense of perspective. Tourists are far more likely to be killed or injured as pedestrians, drivers or passengers on Australian roads than all the other causes of death and injury combined.

Driving between cities and towns can take longer than you think, especially if you are used to freeway or motorway driving in Europe or North America. Avoid the stresses of fatigue by not planning to drive too far in a day.

Driving between capitals also comes with the risk of hitting or crashing due to swerving to avoid wildlife, especially kangaroos which have a habit of being spooked by cars and then, bewilderingly, jumping in front of them. Take extra care when driving through areas with vegetation close to the road and during dawn and dusk when wildlife is most active. Wildlife is not usually an issue in major urban areas (with the exception on Canberra where a series of parks provides ample habitat for kangaroos, which often cross major roads).

Urban Australians jaywalk, dodge cars, and anticipate the sequence of lights. Although most Australians will stop for a red light, running the amber light is common, so ensuring the traffic has stopped before stepping from the curb is always a good idea. People from countries who drive on the right will take a while to get used to looking the correct way when crossing.

Beach going

Around 10-20 overseas travellers drown in Australia each year. Most of these drownings occur at ocean beaches, where statistics put visitors at at significantly higher risk than locals.

Beach goers should swim between the red and yellow flags which designate patrolled areas. Beaches are not patrolled 24-hours a day or even during all daylight hours. In most cases the local volunteer surf lifesavers or professional lifeguards are only available during certain hours, and at some beaches only on weekends, and often only during summer. If the flags aren't up, then there's no one patrolling - and you shouldn't swim. If you do choose to swim, be aware of the risks, check conditions, stay within your depth, and don't swim alone.

Hard surfboards and other water craft e.g. surf skis, kayaks etc., are not permitted between the red and yellow flags. These craft must only be used outside of the blue 'surfcraft permitted' flags.

Australian ocean beaches sometimes can have strong rips that even the strongest swimmers are unable to swim against. Rips are invisible channels of water flowing away from the beach. These channels take out the water which the incoming surf waves bring into shore. Beach goers can mistakenly use these channels or areas since they can appear as calm water and look to be an easier area into which to swim. Problems arise when the swimmer tries to swim back into shore against the outgoing current or rip, tire quickly, and end up drowning. Rips can be recognised by one or more of these signs: a rippled appearance when the surrounding water is fairly calm; foam that extends beyond the break zone; brown, sandy coloured water; waves breaking further out on either side of the rip.

If you are caught in a rip at a patrolled beach, conserve your energy, float or tread water and raise one hand. The surf lifesavers will come out to you. Don't wait until you are so tired you can't swim any more. You will probably find local swimmers or surfers will also quickly come to your aid. Usually the flags are positioned where there are no rips, but this isn't always the case as rips can move.

If you are caught in a rip at an unpatrolled beach stay calm to conserve energy and swim parallel to the beach (not against the pull of the current). Most rips are only a few metres wide, and once clear of the undertow, you will be able to swim or catch a wave to return to shore. Never swim alone. Don't think that the right technique will get you out of every situation. In the surf out the back of the beach, treading water can be hard with waves pounding you every few seconds. Unless you have seen it happen, its hard to appreciate how quickly a rip can take you 50 metres out to sea and into much larger wave breaks. If you are at an unpatrolled surf beach proceed with great caution and never go out of your depth.

Beach signs often have a number, or an alphanumeric code on them. This code can be given to emergency services if required, for them to locate you quickly.

Crocodiles and Box Jellyfish are found on tropical beaches, depending on the time of year and area. Sharks occur on many of Australia's beaches. Patrolled beaches will be monitoring the ocean for any shark activity. If you hear a continuous siren go off at the beach and a red and a red and white quartered flag is waved or held out of the tower, it indicates a shark sighting, so make your way to shore. Once it is clear, a short blast of the siren will be sounded, which usually means it is safe to return to the water.

Natural disasters

Cyclones

Tropical cyclones (hurricanes) occur in the tropics during summer. Information on and advanced warnings of severe weather, is available from the Bureau of Meteorology’s warning page or by calling the National Telephone Weather Services Directory on 1900 926 113.

Floods

In the tropical north the Wet Season occurs over the summer months of December, January and February, bringing torrential rains and frequent floods to those regions. It is not unusual for some coastal areas to be cut off for a day or two while the water recedes. It can still be a good time to visit some of the well populated, tourist-oriented areas, and, except in unusually heavy flooding, you can still get to see the pounding waterfalls and other attractions that can make this an interesting time to visit.

Floods in outback and inland Australia are rare, occurring decades apart, so you would be unlucky to encounter them. However, if you are planning to visit the inland or the outback and the area is flooded, then you should reconsider. The land is flat, so the water can take weeks to move on, leaving the land boggy. Insects and mosquitoes go crazy with all the fresh water pooling around, and these things eat insect repellent for breakfast and are still hungry. Roads close, often adding many hours to driving times. Many attractions often lie on a short stretch of dirt road off the main highways, and these sections become impassable, even if the main road remains open. Plan to return in a few weeks, and the land will still be green, the lakes and rivers will still be flowing, and the bird life will still be around.

The wettest period for the south of the country is usually around the winter months of June, July, and August. There is rarely enough rain at one time to cause flooding. The capital cities are rarely, if ever, significantly affected by floods.

Fires

National parks and forested areas of southern Australia, including some parts of major cities next to national parks and forests, can be threatened by bushfires (wildfires) in summer.

If the fire risk is extreme, parks may be closed, especially the backcountry areas, so you will need to have an alternative plan if you intend to camp or hike in parks during summer. If there is a fire in a park, it will usually be closed entirely.

Entire country towns can sometimes be evacuated when there is a bushfire threatening them. Often there can be no signs of the fire at evacuation time, but you should leave early, as evacuating through a fire front is dangerous. The best advice is just to move on, and not stay around to watch.

Make sure any fires you light are legal and kept under control. The fire service operates a fire ban system during periods of extreme fire danger. When a fire ban is in place all outdoor fires are forbidden. Most parks will advertise a ban, and it is your responsibility to check the local fire danger levels. Fines or even gaol terms apply for lighting fires that get out of control, not to mention the feeling you may get at being responsible for the property, wildlife, and person damage that you may cause.

If you are caught in a bushfire, most fires will pass over quickly. You need to find shelter that will protect you from the smoke and radiant heat. A house is best, then a car, then a clearing, a cave, or on the beach is the best location. Wet everything what you can. Stay low and cover your mouth. Cover yourself with non-flammable (woolen) clothing or blankets, and reduce the skin directly exposed to the heat. If you have access to a tap gather water early, don't rely on water pressure as the fire front approaches. If your holiday goes no further than cities, major towns, and beaches, this won't really concern you.

Water supply

Australia is a very dry country with large areas of desert. It can also get hot. Some parts of the country are always in drought.

When travelling in remote areas, away from sealed roads, where the potential to become stranded for up to a week without seeing another vehicle is very real, it is vital that you carry your own water supply (4 gallons or 7 litres per person per day). Do not be misled by entries on maps such as 'well' or 'spring' or 'tank' (or any entry suggesting that there is a body of water). Nearly all are dry, and most inland lakes are dry salt pans.

Many cities and towns have water restrictions, limiting use of water in activities like washing cars, watering gardens, or public showers. It is common to see signs in accommodation asking visitors to limit the length of their showers.

Poisonous and dangerous creatures

Australia is home to many of the deadliest species of insects, reptiles and marine life on the planet. However the average tourist is unlikely to encounter any of these in an urban environment. The vast majority of deaths from bites and stings in Australia are due to allergic reactions to bees and wasps.

Some of the information spread about Australia's dangerous wildlife is blown out of proportion. However, you should take warnings about jellyfish and crocodiles seriously in the tropics, and keep your distance from snakes in the national parks and bushland.

If travelling in rural areas it would be a good idea to carry basic first aid equipment including compression bandages and to learn what to do after a snake or spider bite.

Snakes and spiders

Australia is home to six of the top ten deadliest snakes in the world. Never try to pick up any snake, even if you believe it to be a non-poisonous species. Most people bitten by snakes were trying to pick up the snake, kill the creature, or inadvertently step on one whilst out walking. Snakes will generally try to put as much distance between themselves and you as possible, so if you see a snake while out walking, simply go around it or walk the other way. Walking blindly into dense bush and grassy areas is not advisable, as they are places where snakes may hide.

It is common to see spiders in Australia, and most will do you no harm. Wear gloves while gardening or handling leaf litter. Check or shake out clothing, shoes, etc that have been left outside before putting them on. Don't put your fingers under rocks, into tree holes, where spiders might be.

The world's deadliest spider is the Sydney Funnel Web spider, found in and around Sydney and eastern New South Wales. Until the late 1970s a bite from this spider could result in death, but anti-venom is now available. The spider is anywhere up to 5 cm large, and is usually black. If you are in an area that is known for having Funnel Web spiders and you are bitten by a spider you believe could be a Funnel Web it is important you get to hospital as quickly as possible. Funnel Webs can seek shelter indoors when there is a lot of rain, however they are usually found under rocks, especially if recent gardening has taken place.

The Red Back spider (usually easily identified by a red mark on its abdomen), is common and after a bite it is important to seek medical attention, however it is not as urgent as with a Funnel Web. Red Backs typically hide in dark places and corners. It is highly unusual to see them indoors, however they can hide in sheds, around outdoor tables and chairs and under rocks or other objects sitting on the ground.

Anti-venom is available for most spider and snake bites. If bitten you should immobilise the wound (by wrapping the affected area tightly with strips of clothing or bandages) and seek immediate medical help. If you are in an isolated area send someone else for help. The venom of some snakes (the taipan in particular) can take effect within fifteen minutes, but if the wound is immediately immobilised and you rest it is possible to delay the onset of poisoning by one to a few hours, depending on the creature. If possible, you should attempt to identify the creature that bit you (in the case of spiders it might be possible to trap it in a jar and take it to the hospital) so that the appropriate anti-venom can be administered swiftly.

First aid treatment for spider bites may vary in Australia compared to other areas of the world. Always seek medical advice after a bite has occurred.

Jellyfish

Travellers in northern Queensland, Northern Territory, or northern Western Australia should be aware of the risk of fatal stings from the Box Jellyfish if swimming in the ocean between October and May. They are very hard to detect and can be found in very shallow water. Stings from these jellyfish are 'excruciating' and often fatal. Vinegar applied immediately to adhering tentacles will lessen the amount of venom injected, but immediate medical assistance will be required. The danger season varies by location. In general the jellyfish are found close to shore, as they breed in the estuaries. They are not generally found out on the Great Barrier Reef, and many people swim on the reef without taking any precautions. Seek out reliable local information. Some locals at the beach can be cavalier to the risks.

Irukandji are another species of tiny (fingernail sized) jellyfish that inhabit the waters off Northern Australia and the surrounding Indo-Pacific islands. They are also very hard to see, and can be dangerous, although bites are rare. Unlike the box jellyfish they are found out on the reef. The initial bite can go unnoticed. There is debate as to whether they can be fatal, but they certainly can place a victim in hospital, and cause extreme pain lasting days. If you have nausea or shooting pains not long after emerging from the water seek medical treatment.

A "stinger-suit" that is resistant to jellyfish stings costs around $100 or can be hired for around $20 a week.

Blue Ring Octopus

Found in rock pools around the coasts of Australia is the tiny Blue Ring Octopus. Usually a dull sandy-beige colour, the creature has bright blue circles on its skin if threatened. The Blue Ring Octopus is rare and shy. Bites occur only if you pick one up and place it on your hand. It has a powerful paralysing toxin which can result in death unless artificial respiration is provided. In the history of Australia there are only two confirmed deaths by Blue Ring Octopus.

Crocodiles

Travellers in northern Queensland, the Northern Territory or north Western Australia should be aware of the risk of fatal attacks by saltwater crocodiles in and adjacent to northern waters (ocean, estuarine and fresh water locations) between King Sound, Western Australia, and Rockhampton, Queensland. Saltwater crocodiles in these areas can reach 25 feet in length and can attack in water without warning. Despite what their name implies, they can be found in both salt and fresh water. On land, crocodiles usually lie motionless, but they have the ability to move with extraordinary speed in short bursts. There are relatively few attacks resulting in injury — most attacks are fatal. Dangerous swimming areas will usually have prominent warning signs. In these regions only swim in inland waters if you are specifically advised that they are safe. Since 1970 there has been about one crocodile attack on a human each year.

The smaller freshwater crocodile is, unlike the saltwater, timid and will avoid humans if possible. The freshwater may attack to defend itself or its eggs or if startled. They can inflict a nasty bite but due to their small jaws and teeth this will rarely cause death in humans.

Dangerous flora

The Gympie bush (Dendrocnide moroides), also known as the stinging tree, is a stinging plant, whose microscopic stinging hairs on leaves and branches can cause severe pain for up to several weeks. They are mostly found in North-east Queensland, especially in rain forest clearings. However, the Gympie bush and other closely related species (there are about five) of stinging tree can be found in south-east Queensland, and further south in eastern Australia. People bushwalking in such areas are advised not to touch the plant for any reason.

Violent crime

Crime rates in Australia are roughly comparable with other first world countries: few travellers will be victims of crime. You should take normal precautions against bag snatching, pick pocketing and the like. There are some areas of the large cities that are more dangerous after dark, but there generally aren't "no-go" areas in the sense that the police refuse to patrol them or that it is dangerous to enter them if you aren't a local.

Australian police are approachable and trustworthy, and you should report assaults, theft or other crime to the police as soon as possible. Under no circumstances should you offer an Australian police officer (or for that matter, any other government official such as a customs officer) a bribe or gratuity, as this is a crime and they will enforce the laws against it.

When leaving your car alone, make sure it is locked, that the windows are rolled up, and that there are no obvious targets for theft in the vehicle, as thieves will often smash windows to get at a phone, GPS or bag that is visible in the car.

Racism

Racism is a sensitive subject in Australia. There are laws against any form of racial vilification or discrimination. It isn't hard to find someone who will express some form of racist views in a pub in Australia. It is much rarer to find someone who will openly express aggression towards any racial group. Australia is outwardly a multicultural and racially tolerant society.

Some language used for ethnic groups that you may find offensive, may not be considered offensive by the standards of some Australians. Terms such as Yank and Pom, and to a lesser extent Wog are used in casual conversation in the presence of those respective nationalities, often between friends, and as such are not seen as offensive. Some will choose a racial abuse term if involved in an argument, over a more general abusive term.

As always, a visitor to Australia must tread more carefully to avoid offence. Australians may find it offensive if an outsider uses words such as "wog", or even using "Aussie" deliberately directed at a white Australians. It is safe to use Aussie to refer to all Australians (regardless of their race).

Scams

Attempts to scam tourists are not prevalent in Australia; take normal precautions such as finding out a little bit about your destination. There have been instances of criminals tampering with ATMs so that cash is trapped inside them, or so that they record card details for thieves. You should check your transaction records for odd transactions after using an ATMs and immediately contact the bank controlling the ATM if a transaction seems to be successful but the machine doesn't give you any cash. Always cover the keypad with your hand when entering your PIN to prevent any skimming devices which have cameras recording your PIN.

Illegal drugs

Opium, heroin, amphetamines (speed), cocaine, LSD, ecstasy, marijuana and hashish among other drugs are all illegal both to possess and to sell in Australia, with trafficking offences usually carrying a jail term. Penalties for possession or sale of small amounts of marijuana are typically lower than for other drugs. In South Australia, Western Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory jail terms do not apply to first time marijuana offences. Foreigners should not expect more lenient treatment than locals from Australian police for drug offences.

Australia's proximity to Asia means that heroin is a far more commonly used illicit drug than cocaine or crack cocaine. In some areas of large cities you will need to be careful of discarded needles: however these will generally be found in back streets rather than in popular tourist spots. Australia has harm minimisation policies: many cities have a needle exchange program and sometimes safe houses for heroin addicts, and HIV infection is thus comparatively low among heroin users in Australia.

Attempting to import illegal drugs into Australia is taken very seriously, and Australia has even co-operated with the police forces in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore in intercepting drug traffickers arriving from or travelling through those countries despite those countries having the death penalty for trafficking. Even information on Australian citizens has been handed to foreign police to assist in trials leading to possible execution. Australia itself has long jail terms (up to life imprisonment) for drug importation. Do not attempt to bring illegal drugs into Australia. Remember, customs regulations are very strict and are always enforced.





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