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Destination Overview

China, with >1.3 billion people, is the world’s most populous country and the fourth largest geographically, behind Russia, Canada, and the United States. It shares a border with 14 other countries and has approximately 11,000 miles (18,000 km) of coastline. China is divided into 23 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, and 4 municipalities (Map 4-12). This large landmass is home to diverse topography, languages, and customs. The climate varies from tropical in the south to subarctic in the north, with wide variations between regions and seasons. Natural hazards include typhoons along the southern and eastern seaboards, dust storms in the north, floods, earthquakes, and landslides. Six of the 10 deadliest natural disasters in history occurred in China, including the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake, which is thought to have killed more than 800,000 people, making it the most lethal earthquake in history. Chinese superstition holds that natural disasters foretell the death of a ruler or the end of a dynasty, and indeed Mao Tse-tung died only 6 weeks after the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, the death toll of which was also in the hundreds of thousands. More recently, devastating earthquakes have struck the western provinces of Sichuan in 2008 and Qinghai in 2010. Torrential rain, floods, and landslides plagued large areas of China in the summer of 2010, as well as drought and dust storms in the north.

Map 4-12. China destination map
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China has one of the world’s oldest continuous civilizations, dating back >5,000 years. It has the world’s longest continuously used written language system and is the source of many major inventions, including the “four great inventions of Ancient China”: paper, the compass, gunpowder, and printing. Today, China is considerably more advanced (with the ability to put people in space, for example) and wealthier than many other developing countries, yet rural poverty and underdevelopment are still problems, particularly in the western part of the country.

Approximately 700 million Chinese people live in rural areas. Urban areas are growing rapidly, however, and China is now home to many of the world’s largest megacities. Shanghai and Beijing each have close to 20 million inhabitants, and Chongqing, with a metropolitan population of more than 30 million, is among the fastest-growing urban centers in the world. Rivers play a central role in China’s economy, history, and culture. The Yangtze River Basin, stretching 4,000 miles (6,400 km) from the Tibetan plateau to the East China Sea near Shanghai, is home to more than 5% of the world’s population.

In 2015, more than 120 million tourists visited China. Tourism to China has grown at an extraordinary pace over the past decade, although numbers have leveled off slightly in the past few years. What is even more striking is the rapid growth in Chinese outbound tourism, from 29 million in 2004 to 120 million in 2015.

China’s long history and varied natural beauty can be traced through its 48 UNESCO World Heritage sites, from the imperial grandeur of the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven to the marvel of the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, and the spectacular mountainous sanctuaries of the west. The most recent additions are the Tusi tribal domains in Western China and the Grand Canal, the oldest (468 bce) and longest (1,115 miles; 1,794 km) man-made canal in the world, linking Beijing and Hangzhou. Popular itineraries often include Beijing and the Great Wall, Xi’an, and the Yangtze River (see Box 4-1 for information specifically about Yangtze River cruises). Other tourist destinations include the following:

  • Shanghai and Hong Kong, with their futuristic architecture and East-meets-West mystique
  • Lijiang in the province of Yunnan, where many ethnic minorities are concentrated
  • Sichuan Province, home to China’s iconic symbol, the panda
  • Guilin, famous for its uniquely shaped limestone karst mountains that are often featured in Chinese paintings
  • Tibet, accessible now by the world’s highest railroad directly to Lhasa, with a maximum altitude of 16,640 ft (5,072 m)

Specialized itineraries are increasingly being offered, including hiking, mountain climbing, village tours, the Silk Road, and other more remote regions. Aside from tourism, increasing numbers of people travel to China to visit friends and relatives, to study, or to adopt children. These groups may be at particularly high risk of illness because they underestimate their risks, are less likely to seek pretravel advice, and stay in more local or rural accommodations. People traveling to China to adopt children often worry about the health of the child but neglect their own health.

Box 4-1. Cruising down the Yangtze: what to consider

The Yangtze River is the third longest river in the world and one of the world’s busiest (and most polluted) waterways. Yangtze River cruises are popular with tourists, and there are several health considerations for this trip:

  • At least 1 case of Japanese encephalitis has been documented in a tourist whose 3-week trip to rural and urban China included a Yangtze River cruise, and documented cases are likely to be an underestimate.
  • Malaria is not a substantial risk on this itinerary; only insect bite precautions are recommended.
  • Schistosomiasis—Schistosoma japonicum —exists in the Yangtze River basin. Swimming is ill-advised.
  • Motion sickness is rare on Yangtze cruises, since much of it takes place on a calm reservoir. However, susceptible travelers should carry antiemetic medication.
  • Excursions off the boat often involve steep climbs, many stairs, and long walking distances and may not be appropriate for physically infirm tourists.
  • Air pollution can be a problem on Yangtze River cruises and can cause eye and throat irritation as well as respiratory problems in susceptible travelers. September and October are said to be the clearest months.
  • Most non-Chinese-speaking tourists will prefer a 4- or 5-star “luxury” cruise. First class on a Chinese tourist boat may not meet expectations for cleanliness, and English may not be spoken.
  • Food and water precautions apply, even on a luxury boat.

Health Issues

Although China is now the world’s second-largest economy, per capita income is still below the world average, with wide disparity in wealth and development between rural and urban as well as east and west. Health risks vary accordingly.

Air Pollution

China’s rapid economic expansion has resulted in tremendous increases in emissions of air pollutants, particularly in the megacities. Although aggressive efforts are underway to control pollution, 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in China, and Beijing regularly tops the list. On peak pollution days, the levels of particulate matter in the air can exceed 40 times the limit considered safe by the World Health Organization. Short-term exposure to these levels of air pollution can irritate the eyes and throat, and those with underlying cardiorespiratory illness, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or congestive heart failure, may find their condition exacerbated. In addition, exposure to high levels of air pollution significantly increases the risk of respiratory tract infections, including sinusitis, otitis, bronchitis, and pneumonia. Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable to these effects.

Although surgical-style face masks have become increasingly fashionable in the big cities of China, especially Beijing and Shanghai, they provide no protection from air pollution and are not recommended. Properly fitted N95 masks can filter out particulates but not gaseous pollutants and can sometimes actually compound breathing problems, so are not routinely recommended.

Vaccine-Preventable Diseases

Routine vaccinations should be up-to-date, including seasonal influenza. In addition, hepatitis A and B and typhoid vaccinations are usually recommended. Since the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region borders Pakistan, a polio-endemic country, adults traveling to this region who will be working in health care settings, refugee camps, or humanitarian aid settings should be vaccinated against polio, including a single lifetime booster dose of polio vaccine (IPV). Measles and rubella immunity is particularly important, and although a massive vaccination campaign begun in September 2010 has decreased the number of reported measles cases, there were still more than 100,000 cases reported in 2014. A few travelers have made news headlines by triggering outbreaks in their home countries after returning from China. Although limited data exist on rubella in China, it was not part of the national immunization program until 2008, and incidence is believed to be high.

China is making considerable advances in vaccination, with the objective of developing their own locally made vaccines. There have, however, been many well-publicized issues with counterfeit and improperly stored vaccines. In addition, vaccine shortages are frequent; adult tetanus vaccines were out of stock from 2014 through the time of writing. Travelers are unlikely to be able to complete unfinished vaccination series once in China and may be unable to access tetanus vaccine if injured while there. All travelers should have an up-to-date tetanus-containing vaccine before going to China. Hong Kong functions under different rules, and international vaccines are in use there.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B infection is endemic in China. Nearly one-third of the 350 million people worldwide infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV) reside in China. Hepatitis B vaccination and other preventive measures should be discussed with nonimmune travelers.

Japanese Encephalitis

Japanese encephalitis (JE) occurs in all regions except Qinghai, Xinjiang, and Xizang (Tibet) (see Map 3-8 and Table 3-7). China has greatly reduced the incidence of JE through vaccination and, as of 2008, included JE in its expanded national immunization program; however, the disease remains a threat to unimmunized travelers. Although the JE season varies by region, most cases in local residents are reported from June through October. The risk of JE for most travelers to China is low but varies based on season, destination, duration, and activities. Risk is highest among travelers to rural areas during the transmission season. JE vaccine is recommended for travelers who plan to spend ≥1 month in endemic areas during June through October. It should be considered for shorter-term travelers if they plan to travel to rural areas and will have an increased risk for JE virus exposure based on their activities or itineraries, such as spending substantial time outdoors or staying in accommodations without air conditioning, screens, or bed nets. However, rare sporadic cases have occurred on an unpredictable basis in short-term travelers, including in periurban Beijing and Shanghai.


Rabies is a serious problem in China, as in much of Asia, with more than 3,000 reported human deaths per year. Mammal bites in any area of China, including urban areas, must be considered high risk for rabies. As rabies immune globulin is generally unavailable, animal bites are often trip-enders, requiring evacuation to Hong Kong, Bangkok, or home for postexposure prophylaxis. Bites are surprisingly common in tourists. For example, dog bites were the most common dermatologic problem seen after China travel in an analysis of data from the GeoSentinel Surveillance Network. Rabies risk and prevention should be discussed in pretravel consultations, and a strategy for dealing with a possible exposure should be developed. Long-term travelers and expatriates living in China should consider the preexposure vaccination series. Travel health insurance, including medical evacuation insurance, should be encouraged (see Chapter 2, Travel Insurance, Travel Health Insurance, & Medical Evacuation Insurance).

Vectorborne Diseases


Malaria risk is very low for travelers to China, with the exception of those visiting rural parts of southern Yunnan Province. For this area, chemoprophylaxis should be considered. Mefloquine resistance in southern Yunnan means that travelers should be given doxycycline or atovaquone-proguanil for travel in this area.


In 2014, southern China experienced its worst dengue outbreak in decades; Guangdong province reported more than 40,000 cases in just 2 months. Travelers should practice daytime mosquito precautions in the summer months.

Other Health Risks

Foodborne Illnesses

The risk for travelers’ diarrhea appears to be low in deluxe accommodations in China but moderate elsewhere. Usual food and water precautions should apply, and travelers should consider bringing an antibiotic for self-treatment of moderate to severe diarrhea. Since highly quinolone-resistant Campylobacter is a problem in China, azithromycin may be a good choice. Tap water is not safe to drink even in major cities. Most hotels provide bottled or boiled water, and bottled water is easily available. In addition, there have been several well-publicized episodes of contamination of food with pesticides and other substances. Travelers should strictly avoid undercooked fish and shellfish and unpasteurized milk.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis, HIV, gonorrhea, and chlamydia, are a growing problem in China, particularly along the booming eastern seaboard. Travel is associated with loosened inhibitions and increased casual sexual liaisons. Travelers should be aware of STD risks and use condoms if they have sex with someone whose HIV or STD status is unknown. Hepatitis B vaccination before travel should be considered.

Road Traffic Injuries

Traffic in China is often chaotic, and the rate of traffic crashes, including fatal ones, is among the highest in the world. Driving is on the right side of the road in mainland China but on the left in Hong Kong and Macau. In practice, many people drive down the middle of the road. Child safety seats, rear seat belts, and bicycle or motorcycle helmets are rarely seen and not widely available. Electronic bicycles (E-bikes) are popular and do not have to be registered. They often travel in pedestrian and bicycle lanes as well as with traffic. Because E-bikes are quiet (no engine noise), they can be hard to avoid. Motor vehicles and E-bikes often drive with no lights, making night travel dangerous. Traffic crashes, even minor ones, can create major traffic jams and sometimes turn into violent altercations, particularly when foreigners are involved. China has not signed the convention that created the International Driving Permit, and travelers require a Chinese license to drive in China. For all of these reasons, it is often simpler and safer to hire a local driver than to drive oneself. It is also advisable to avoid driving at night or when weather conditions are bad, and not to assume that traffic rules or right-of-way will be respected. Travelers should fasten seat belts when riding in cars and wear a helmet when riding bicycles or motorbikes.

Vitamin D Deficiency

Vitamin D deficiency is a major issue in the northern provinces of China, where smog often blocks out sunlight, causing inadequate absorption of vitamin D through the skin even in the summer months. If the traveler will be spending more than 6 months in China, vitamin D supplementation is recommended.

Medical Care in China

Western-style medical facilities that meet international standards are available in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Some hospitals in other cities have “VIP wards” (gaogan bingfang ), which may have English-speaking staff. The standard of care in such facilities is somewhat unpredictable, and cultural and regulatory differences can cause difficulties for travelers. In rural areas, only rudimentary medical care may be available. Hepatitis B virus transmission from poorly sterilized medical equipment remains a risk outside major centers.

Ambulances are not staffed with trained paramedics and often have little or no medical equipment. Therefore, injured travelers may need to take taxis or other immediately available vehicles to the nearest major hospital rather than waiting for ambulances to arrive.

Pharmacies often sell prescription medications over the counter. Such medications have sometimes been counterfeit, substandard, or even contaminated. Travelers should bring all their regular medications in sufficient quantity; if more or other medications are required, it is advisable to visit a reputable clinic or hospital.

Some travelers wish to try traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture. Although most do so uneventfully, there is a risk of bloodborne and skin infections from acupuncture needles, and traditional medicine products may be contaminated with heavy metals or pharmaceutical agents. Acupressure may be preferable to acupuncture.

Travelers are strongly advised to purchase travel health and medical evacuation insurance before travel. Most hospitals will not directly accept foreign medical insurance, however, and patients will often be expected to pay a deposit before care to cover the expected cost of the treatment.


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Sarah T. Borwein, Roohollah Changizi