Everyday vigilance in support of Emory's international travelers

If you've just returned from a trip and start noticing you have a cough, going straight to Emory Healthcare's TravelWell Center at Emory University Hospital Midtown could save your life.

The doctors at TravelWell spend their time administering vaccines and preparing travelers for the risks of an upcoming trip or treating travel-related ailments afterwards – ranging from traveler's diarrhea to malaria and dengue fever. However, unlike the vast majority of travel clinics, TravelWell acts as a CDC-funded sentinel health facility, part of an international disease surveillance network, and has the expertise to identify and treat a number of more rare conditions, from emerging tropical diseases such as Zika to Hansen's disease, more commonly known as leprosy.

Dr. Henry Wu, director of the clinic and assistant professor of medicine in the Department of Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine, specializes in infectious disease, particularly in international health. He spent four years with the CDC traveling around the world investigating and preventing meningitis outbreaks before taking on the unique challenge of running Atlanta's premier provider of health services for international travelers.

Founded nearly 30 years ago by Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, Emory University School of Medicine, TravelWell requires doctors with the curiosity and drive to stay up to date on what's happening in different parts of the world, from emerging infections to public safety risks. Their practice necessitates the communication skills to effectively equip international travelers with the knowledge they may need to protect themselves and the stamina to remain constantly vigilant for the rare threat that may emerge at any moment from amidst the everyday routine.

"It's not as simple as, well, you have a fever, and it's wintertime, so it's probably the flu, and you'll be fine," explains Wu. "When somebody comes in with symptoms, and even if they're just nonspecific things that could be anything – fever, cough – we have to think about a lot more and consider: What's going on? Where have they been? What were they doing? What disease has been emerging? It's challenging work."

And when the unexpected does show up? Considering the sheer volume of ever-evolving possibilities, common and rare, the immediate aim of TravelWell's highly skilled team of doctors is to rule out the deadly threats as quickly as possible while treating the patient.

"TravelWell is an amazing resource, and we want to make sure that everyone at Emory is aware of it," says Chris Rapalje, director of programs and services in the Office of Global Strategy and Initiatives. "They don't just treat Emory community members, either. Corporations and nonprofits around the region send their international travelers there. They do amazing work."

During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, for example, few, if any, other clinics in Atlanta would see sick travelers who had been to Ebola-impacted countries. The evaluations were too frequent and too involved to routinely route to an emergency room. Thankfully, all TravelWell's cases to date have resulted in ruling out the deadly disease.

Prior to 2012, TravelWell became one of 16 federally funded outpatient clinics contracted to treat Hansen's disease. Wu's TravelWell colleague Dr. Jessica Fairley, also an assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, Emory University School of Medicine, leads that aspect of the clinic's charge. An expert in infectious and parasitic diseases with a specialty in neglected tropical diseases, Fairley has grown the Hansen's disease treatment program into what it is today.

The faculty at TravelWell hope to increase their partnerships with Emory colleagues as understanding of the breadth of their work becomes more widespread.

In the meantime, they'll keep on protecting our international travelers through prevention and treatment. If you plan to travel internationally or if you become sick while traveling or have recently traveled internationally, Dr. Wu and his team would be happy to see you right away.