Do Tourists Really Need To Have Their Appendix Removed Before Visiting Antarctica?

An age-old myth suggests that anyone traveling to Antarctica must have their appendix removed before setting foot on the icy continent. After all, it is one of the world's most desolate places and doesn't exactly boast world-class medical facilities. Add to that the potentially deadly nature of appendicitis, and you've got one hell of an emergency. But how much truth is there to this claim? Do tourists really need to undergo an appendectomy to explore the Earth's southernmost frontier?

The genesis of this myth can be traced back to the medical requirements imposed on researchers and staff spending extended periods in Antarctica, especially those overwintering. Given the continent's extreme remoteness and the difficulty of evacuating individuals with appendicitis, some national Antarctic programs have indeed advised personnel to have their appendix (and sometimes even their wisdom teeth!) removed as a precautionary measure. For example, the Australian Antarctic Program requires its doctors who stay over the wintertime to arrive on the job appendix-free.

Why? Because, usually, only one doctor is assigned to a station. If an emergency happens, no one, except the one doctor, can perform the surgery, and an evacuation is rarely feasible. Not a soul goes in or out during the winter — like in John Carpenter's "The Thing." Moreover, landing a plane in the dead of Antarctica's winter is nearly impossible. With temperatures of -30 degrees Fahrenheit, winds blitzing at 62 miles per hour, sweeping whiteout blizzards, and no sun for months, an unexpected appendicitis would literally be the worst thing ever.

Dispelling Antarctica's appendix myth

For tourists, however, the situation is quite different. The majority of visitors to Antarctica do so on summer cruises, which last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. These cruises are equipped with facilities and staff capable of handling common emergencies. Furthermore, the ships remain close to evacuation points should a serious medical situation arise. Myth dispelled: There is no requirement for tourists to have their appendix removed before embarking on an Antarctic adventure.

That being said, the risk of appendicitis, although low, isn't nonexistent. Appendicitis can occur unexpectedly and requires immediate surgery. According to a 2018 study, the lifetime risk of appendicitis is 8.6% in males and 6.7% in females. If left untreated, it can lead to perforation and then sepsis, life-threatening complications that occur in 17% to 32% of patients. The concern in Antarctica, even more than other remote destinations, is the challenge of accessing timely medical care.

You might think, what are the odds? The chances are there and two cases serve as grave examples. The first case happened in July of 1950 on Heard Island. Dr. Serge Udovikoff suddenly, as one does, got acute appendicitis. Before picking up the scalpel to operate on himself, an Australian navy vessel came to the rescue and evacuated him to Fremantle, where he got medical care. Another doctor was not so lucky. In April of 1961, 27-year-old Dr. Leonid Rogozov had to perform a DIY auto-appendectomy with only local anesthesia and assistance from two expeditioners.

Travel tips for Antarctica

While appendectomy is not a requirement for tourists visiting Antarctica, other health and safety guidelines must be followed. Tourists are often required to disclose their medical information or provide a physician's certificate confirming they are fit for travel. This is to ensure the individual's safety, their ability to participate in the expedition, and also to protect the well-being of other passengers. Additionally, given the high cost and logistical complexity of emergency medical services, visitors can only travel with comprehensive travel insurance that covers medical evacuation.

In general, focusing on overall physical well-being and adhering to health recommendations is more practical and beneficial than worrying about an appendectomy. Before your trip, visit your doctor or a travel clinic for a medical check-up to ensure you're in good health before your trip. Ensure your vaccinations are up-to-date, including those for influenza, hepatitis, or other necessary kinds, to protect yourself and fellow travelers in the confined spaces of a cruise ship.

You don't need to be an athlete to enjoy an Antarctic cruise, but having a reasonable level of fitness can enhance your experience, especially if you plan to participate in shore landings and other physical activities. By following the actual guidelines provided by tour operators and ensuring they are medically fit for the journey, tourists can safely enjoy the unique landscapes and wildlife of Antarctica without undergoing unnecessary surgery. If you want to go to Antarctica, don't worry. The appendix myth is just that — a myth.