Skip directly to search Skip directly to A to Z list Skip directly to page options Skip directly to site content

Chapter 8 Advising Travelers with Specific Needs

Immigrants Returning Home to Visit Friends & Relatives (VFRs)

Jay S. Keystone


A traveler categorized as a VFR is an immigrant, ethnically and racially distinct from the majority population of the country of residence (a higher-income country), who returns to his or her home country (lower-income country) to visit friends or relatives. Included in the VFR category are family members, such as the spouse or children, who were born in the country of residence. Some experts have recommended that the term VFR refer to all those visiting friends and relatives regardless of the traveler’s country of origin; however, this proposed definition may be too broad and not take into consideration cultural, economic, and attitudinal issues. Thus in this review, the more classic definition is used.


Altered migration patterns to North America in the past 30 years have resulted in many immigrants originating from Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America instead of Europe. Although 13% of the US population is foreign born, in 2012, up to 40% of certain groups of international travelers from the United States (such as travelers to Asia) listed VFR as a reason for travel. VFRs experience a higher incidence of travel-related infectious diseases, such as malaria, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, hepatitis A, and sexually transmitted diseases, than do other groups of international travelers, for a number of reasons:

  • Lack of awareness of risk
  • ≤30% have a pre-travel health care encounter
  • Financial barriers to pre-travel health care
  • Clinics are not geographically convenient
  • Cultural and language barriers with health care providers
  • Lack of trust in the medical system
  • Last-minute travel plans and longer trips
  • Travel to higher-risk destinations, such as staying in homes and living the local lifestyle that often includes lack of safe food and water and bed net use
  • Divergent health beliefs


In 2011, 55% of imported malaria cases in US civilians occurred among VFRs. Data from GeoSentinel Surveillance Network show that among ill travelers who present for medical care, VFRs are 8 times more likely to be diagnosed with malaria than are tourist travelers. Reports from the United Kingdom show similar results for VFR versus tourist travelers to West Africa. Many VFRs assume they are immune; however, in most VFRs, especially those who left their countries of origin years previously, immunity has waned and is no longer protective. In recent years, a number of VFRs have died of malaria on their return to North America; in 2011, 59% of those with severe malaria for whom the purpose of travel was known were VFRs, mostly returned from West Africa.

Other Infections

In the United States, 66% of typhoid cases occur in VFRs, mostly from South Asia and Latin America; 90% of paratyphoid A cases are imported from South Asia as well. A recent Canadian study showed that 94% of typhoid cases in Quebec were in VFRs, mostly from the Indian subcontinent.

VFR children aged <15 years are at highest risk for hepatitis A, and many are asymptomatic. The Quebec study cited above showed that 65% of hepatitis A cases were in VFRs aged <20 years, and in a Swedish study of 636 cases of imported infection, 52% were in VFRs, of whom 90% were <14 years old. Other diseases, such as tuberculosis, hepatitis B, cholera, and measles, occur more commonly in VFRs after travel.


Table 8-02 summarizes VFR health risks and prevention recommendations. It is important to increase awareness among travelers regarding their unique risks for travel-related infections and the barriers to travel health services. If possible, clinics should incorporate culturally sensitive educational materials, provide language translators, and provide handouts in multiple languages.


Travel immunization recommendations and requirements for VFRs are the same as those for US-born travelers. It is crucial, however, to first try to establish whether the immigrant traveler has had routine immunizations (such as measles and tetanus) or has a history of the diseases. Adult travelers, in the absence of documentation of immunizations, may be considered to be susceptible, and age-appropriate vaccinations (or serologic studies to check for antibody status) should be provided, with 2 caveats:

  • Immunity to hepatitis A should not be assumed; many young adults and adolescents from developing countries are still susceptible. Pre-travel serologic testing for both hepatitis A and B may be worthwhile.
  • Consider varicella immunization for immigrants from South and Southeast Asia and Latin America. These travelers may be more susceptible, because infection occurs at an older age in tropical than in temperate regions. Also, rates of death and complications from varicella disease are higher in adults than in children.

Malaria Prevention

VFR travelers to endemic areas should not only be encouraged to take prophylactic medications, but also be reminded of the benefits of barrier methods of prevention, such as bed nets and insect repellents, particularly for children (see Chapter 2, Protection against Mosquitoes, Ticks, & Other Arthropods). VFRs should be advised that drugs such as chloroquine and pyrimethamine, as well as proguanil monotherapy, are no longer effective in most areas, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. These medications are often readily available and inexpensive in their home countries but are not efficacious.

VFRs should also be encouraged to purchase their medications before traveling to ensure good drug quality. Studies in Africa and Southeast Asia show that one-third to half of antimalarial drugs purchased locally were counterfeit or substandard; a recently published study from Laos showed that 88% of oral artesunate sold in pharmacies was of poor quality.

How to reach VFRs to educate them about the need for travel advice is a perennial problem. Recently, in Australia, an approach to reach VFRs by using community-based initiatives included travel health messages through media, print, and community festivals.

Table 8-02. Diseases for which VFR travelers are at increased risk, proposed reasons for risk variance, and recommendations to reduce risks specific to travelers visiting friends and relatives1

Foodborne and waterborne illness Social and cultural pressure (eat the meal served by hosts)

Frequent handwashing

Avoid high-risk foods (dairy products, undercooked foods)

Simplify treatment regimens (single dose, such as azithromycin, 1,000 mg, or ciprofloxacin, 500 mg)

Discuss food preparation

Fish-related toxins and infections

Eating high-risk foods

Less pre-travel advice

Avoidance counseling about specific foods (such as raw freshwater fish)

Longer stays

Higher-risk destinations

Less pre-travel advice leading to less use of chemoprophlaxis and fewer personal protection measures

Belief that one is already immune

Education on malaria, mosquito avoidance, and the need for chemoprophylaxis

Consider cost of chemoprophylaxis

Use of insecticide-treated bed nets

Tuberculosis (particularly multidrug-resistant)

Increased close contact with local population

Increased contact with HIV-coinfected people

Check PPD 2–3 months after return if history of negative tuberculin skin test and long stay (>3 months)

Educate about tuberculosis signs, symptoms, and avoidance

Bloodborne and sexually transmitted diseases

More likely to seek substandard local care

Cultural practices (tattoos, female genital mutilation)

Longer stays and increased chance of blood transfusion

Higher likelihood of sexual encounters with local population

Discuss high-risk behaviors, including tattoos, piercings, dental work, sexual encounters

Encourage purchase of condoms before travel

Consider providing syringes, needles, and intravenous catheters for long-term travel

Schistosomiasis and soil-transmitted helminths Limited access to piped-in water in rural areas for bathing and washing clothes

Avoid freshwater exposure

Use liposomal DEET preparation with freshwater exposures3

Discourage children from playing in dirt

Use ground cover

Use protective footwear

Respiratory problems Increased close exposure to fires, smoking, or pollution Prepare for asthma exacerbations by considering stand-by bronchodilators and steroids
Zoonotic diseases (such as rickettsial infections, leptopirosis, viral fevers, leishmaniasis, anthrax, Chagas disease)

Rural destinations

Stays with family where animals are kept

Increased exposure to insects

Increased exposure to mice and rats

Sleeping on floors

Avoid animal contact

Wash hands

Wear protective clothing and use insect repellent

Check for ticks daily

Avoid thatched roofs and mud walled accomodation and fresh sugar cane juice in Latin America

Avoid sleeping at floor level

Envenomations (snakes, spiders, scorpions) Sleeping on floors

Avoid sleeping at floor level

Wear shoes outdoors at night

Toxin ingestion (medication adverse events, heavy metal ingestion)

Purchase of local medications

Use of traditional therapies

Use of contaminated products (such as pottery with lead glaze)

Eating contaminated freshwater fish

Anticipate need and purchase medications before travel

Counsel avoidance of known traditional medications (such as Hmong bark tea with aspirin) and high-risk items (such as large reef fish)

Yellow fever and Japanese encephalitis (risk is decreased in adults) Unclear, partial immunity due to previous exposure or vaccination Avoid mosquitoes by taking protective measures and receiving vaccination when appropriate
Dengue fever (especially risk of severe dengue) Severe dengue occurs on repeat exposure to a different serotype of dengue; VFRs more likely to have had previous exposure Avoid mosquitoes by taking protective measures

Abbreviations: VFR, visiting friends and relatives; PPD, tuberculin purified protein derivative; DEET, N,N-diethyl-m-toluamide.
1Adapted from: Bacaner N, Stauffer B, Boulware DR, Walker PF, Keystone JS. Travel medicine considerations for North American immigrants visiting friends and relatives. JAMA. 2004;291(23):2856–64.
2Hypothesis unless referenced to support assertions.
3In animal models, DEET (liposomal preparations) prevents Schistosoma cercariae from penetrating the skin.


  1. Angell SY, Cetron MS. Health disparities among travelers visiting friends and relatives abroad. Ann Intern Med. 2005 Jan 4;142(1):67–72.
  2. Bacaner N, Stauffer B, Boulware DR, Walker PF, Keystone JS. Travel medicine considerations for North American immigrants visiting friends and relatives. JAMA. 2004 Jun 16;291(23):2856–64.
  3. Barnett ED, Christiansen D, Figueira M. Seroprevalence of measles, rubella, and varicella in refugees. Clin Infect Dis. 2002 Aug 15;35(4):403–8.
  4. Bate R, Coticelli P, Tren R, Attaran A. Antimalarial drug quality in the most severely malarious parts of Africa—a six country study. PLoS One. 2008;3(5):e2132.
  5. Greenaway C, Dongier P, Boivin JF, Tapiero B, Miller M, Schwartzman K. Susceptibility to measles, mumps, and rubella in newly arrived adult immigrants and refugees. Ann Intern Med. 2007 Jan 2;146(1):20–4.
  6. Hendel-Paterson B, Swanson SJ. Pediatric travelers visiting friends and relatives (VFR) abroad: illnesses, barriers and pre-travel recommendations. Travel Med Infect Dis. 2011 Jul;9(4):192–203.
  7. Leder K, Lau S, Leggat P. Innovative community-based initiatives to engage VFR travelers. Travel Med Infect Dis. 2011 Sep;9(5):258–61.
  8. Leder K, Tong S, Weld L, Kain KC, Wilder-Smith A, von Sonnenburg F, et al. Illness in travelers visiting friends and relatives: a review of the GeoSentinel Surveillance Network. Clin Infect Dis. 2006 Nov 1;43(9):1185–93.
  9. Lynch MF, Blanton EM, Bulens S, Polyak C, Vojdani J, Stevenson J, et al. Typhoid fever in the United States, 1999–2006. JAMA. 2009 Aug 26;302(8):859–65.
  10. Pavli A, Maltezou HC. Malaria and travellers visiting friends and relatives. Travel Med Infect Dis. 2010 May;8(3):161–8