A Few Quiet Drinks On Your Well-deserved Holidays?
On New Year’s Eve 2012, Australian Liam Davies was celebrating with mates on Gili Trawangan, a tourist island off the north-west coast of Lombok. “Do you serve genuine imported spirits?” he asked the bartender, before ordering a vodka and lime. “Yes,” they said. They lied. Within days Liam was dead of methanol poisoning.
Sorry to be depressing, but ignorance is not bliss when it comes to methanol. Who would have thought, that something like having a little drink on holidays, could turn out so tragically?
Every traveller who drinks spirits overseas needs to know about methanol. Methanol poisoning is a dangerous but grossly underestimated risk to travelers. Poisoning can happen anywhere, but it is more common where home-brewed spirits are widely available, such as Indonesia, Thailand, or Vietnam. Bar owners may lace spirits with methanol (aka ‘bootleg’) to increase profits. Methanol is tasteless and odourless. The first symptoms of methanol poisoning feel like a hangover – even from one drink. It can take several hours after consumption before the symptoms of methanol poisoning appear. It becomes like a super hangover; lousy headache, dizziness, vomiting, abdominal pain, breathlessness, impaired vision and, in severe cases, blindness (which can be permanent). It just keeps getting worse, the body shuts down, and the poisoning leads to convulsions, coma, and death. Urgent skilled medical care is required if the person has any hope of surviving. Usually, by the time people realise its dangerous, it is too late.
But this is an entirely avoidable problem – if you know about it. The best way to prevent methanol poisoning is don’t drink spirits or cocktails in less regulated countries (unless they are from your duty-free allowance).
If you must drink spirits, ensure you buy spirits from a reputable vendor, and check the seals on the bottles are intact. Be suspicious of alcoholic drinks offered for sale in informal settings that are not licensed to sell alcohol, (such as market stalls). Avoid open bottles of spirits – especially in beach bars. If the alcohol seems cheap, maybe there is a reason? Of course, steer clear of alcoholic drinks sold in unlabelled containers, or illegal alcoholic beverages. Check the labels on branded products, if you can, looking for names that are poorly printed or with errors.
Spread the word – unfortunately, this type of travel hazard is not well known. If you want more information, google ‘methanol poisoning’ – sadly, this problem is not rare.
Travel medicine is not just vaccinations; its also about getting the information you need for a safe and healthy journey. Ideally, have a travel consultation six weeks before departure.