Health and safety in Western Australia

Health

Western Australia is fully developed and has a comprehensive health-care system. Your main health risks are likely to come from sunburn, heat exhaustion, exposure to the elements, and in some areas, mosquito-borne viruses such as Ross River virus.

Safety in the sun

The sun in the southern hemisphere is like a microwave, and if you are coming from the northern hemisphere, you will not be accustomed to just how quickly and severely you can get sunburned here (especially in summer). A period of time that you can spend outdoors in Europe or America with no problem will turn you into a lobster here. Australia has one of the world’s highest rates of skin cancers from UV exposure.

‘Slip, slap, slop’, a slogan referring to wearing suncream, became a national tagline in the 1980s, and make this a personal mantra. Cloudy days do not reduce the risk of UV or sunburn – the rays just penetrate right through them. Carry suncream, sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat with you at all times, and reapply the cream at regular intervals. Ideally use at least a factor 25 (preferably higher) to protect against the UVB rays and ensure that it has a five-star UVA rating too.

Nationally, heatwaves cause more deaths than bushfires and storms combined. Heat-related illnesses occur when sweat alone is not enough to keep your body cool, whether that’s because you can’t sweat enough or because the conditions are too extreme for your body. Symptoms of heat stress include headaches, dizziness, fatigue and tiredness, cramps, feeling less thirsty and urinating less. Rest in a cool area, drink water, remove excess clothing and apply a wet cloth to your skin, particularly the armpits and groin. If you are starting to feel the effects of heat stress or aren’t sure, always assume heat stroke, which can cause permanent organ damage. Heat stroke comes with elevated body temperature, and signs include abnormal walking, confusion, strange speech patterns and seizures. Call 000 (Australia’s emergency number) immediately as heat stroke is a life-threatening emergency. While waiting for assistance, strip as much clothing off the victim as possible, soak with water and fan vigourously.

Mosquito-borne diseases

Ross River virus and Barmah Forest virus are the two most common mosquito-transmitted viruses in WA; both are nasty and have similar symptoms and effects on humans. In each case, you are infected by a mosquito carrying the relevant virus, and neither is transmissible person-to- person or animal-to-person. Though not fatal, crippling fatigue, joint pain and sore muscles, often lasting for months (and sometimes over a year), are common symptoms (though many people experience no symptoms at all). The viruses are at their most prevalent in warmer temperatures; the north can be exposed to them all year round, and they do occur in the south as well, particularly on the coast between Mandurah and Busselton, where you will sometimes see public awareness billboards and ‘Fight the Bite’ logos. Once you’ve been infected, however, you’re unlikely to get it again.

Health care

Australia has reciprocal health agreements with 11 countries – Belgium, Finland, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Ireland, Slovenia, Sweden and the UK. These agreements cover medically necessary care, but your definition of what is medically necessary may differ from the government’s, and do not cover all medications – and in any case these agreements do not replace the need for private insurance. The Services Australia website has more information, but ensure you have adequate insurance coverage to repatriate yourself to your home country if needed.

The medical system in WA is a private–public partnership; some hospitals are publicly run, and some are private. GPs are usually the first point of call for health services, though in emergencies go straight to the emergency department. In small towns and country areas, you may have no choice if the GP is shut and you need urgent advice.

Ambulance services are run by trained volunteers (St John) in country areas. Journeys can be quite expensive for visitors and even for Australians who are not covered by Medicare in WA; ensure your insurance covers this.

Travel clinics and health information

A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on istm.org. For other journey preparation information, consult travelhealthpro.org.uk (UK) or wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel (USA). Information about various medications may be found on netdoctor.co.uk/travel. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.

Safety

Road safety

Your biggest safety risk in WA is the roads. Traffic fatalities and accidents are alarmingly high. WA drives on the left, and country roads and highways are not multi-lane affairs as is the case in the US and Europe. Even between major towns, highways are usually only two lanes, can be windy and bendy, have lots of heavy vehicles from road trains to big pieces of farming machinery, and there are limited overtaking opportunities. Fatigue, drink-driving and speeding are major contributors to accidents. Schedule frequent rest breaks; the rolling pastureland of the Wheatbelt has some of the highest per- capita rates of accidents in the state – it is easy to zone out unintentionally during a monotonous, multi-hour drive.

Unsealed roads are a major fact of life in regional areas. Check your car-hire contract carefully, as some don’t allow you to drive on them and others don’t but allow exceptions for access roads to car parks in national parks – always worth asking the question to make sure. On an unsealed road, you need to drop your speed significantly and drive to the conditions. Slow down well in advance of any curves. Sudden stops or turns of the wheel could easily cause you to lose control and roll over, and that is true even of veteran country drivers. Never drive your vehicle through water of unknown depth – cars can washout even in knee-deep water, and the currents are deceptively strong – and people have died from that. Pay close attention to weather forecasts and warnings during inclement weather. Remember that speed kills; ‘Drop 5, Save lives’ – meaning drop 5kph from your driving speed – is a road safety slogan here.

Natural disasters

Bushfires, cyclones and floods all occur in Western Australia. The Emergency WA website has real-time information on natural disasters, warnings and advice, and is a vital service bookmarked by locals, particularly useful in bushfire season (Jun–Oct in the Kimberley, Sep–Apr elsewhere). Cyclone season runs from November to April, but is generally an issue only for the northern third of the state (though Cyclone Alby did hit Busselton in the 1970s). Floods following torrential rains or cyclones can also be disastrous, and the state’s dry rivers, creeks and lakes can fill up quickly. Never drive through water of unknown depth.

Women travellers

WA is very safe and welcoming for solo female travellers, and that includes all forms of transportation and accommodation. Take the same safety precautions that anyone would normally take and there should be no issues.

LGBTQ+ travellers

Same-sex marriage is legal in Australia, and West Australians are generally very tolerant. However, this is not to say you won’t come across homophobic attitudes here and there, more noticeable outside Perth, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Visitors should feel just as welcome in WA as they would elsewhere in Australia, if not more so, though legislation is a bit inconsistent – the state does not allow same-sex surrogacy, for instance, but it was the first state in the nation to grant full adoption rights to same-sex couples in 2002, and a West Australian same-sex couple were the first in the nation to adopt in 2007. The 2017 national postal survey on same-sex marriage – which provided the foundation for parliament to legalise same-sex marriage in the immediate aftermath (the bill was introduced by a West Australian MP, Senator Dean Smith) – passed in WA by the second-biggest margin of any of the states, behind only Victoria.

For more information on the LGBTQ+ community in WA, check out Living Proud or Pride WA. The latter grew out of a protest movement against discriminatory laws and practices in the 1980s, and now provides a platform to celebrate and promote cultural diversity. They have a calendar of events on their website.

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