Do you need your appendix removed before you go?

Mawson expeditioners at medical operation training
Mawson expeditioners at medical operation training (Photo: Jim Bumak)

The health and safety of expeditioners in Antarctica is a top priority, therefore they must undergo various health checks before being selected as fit to work in Antarctica. There is also a doctor at each Australian Antarctic and subantarctic station who is trained in remote medicine, including dentistry.

One of the most common questions people ask is, do expeditioners need to have their appendix removed before going south? The answer is no, however doctors who are wintering at Australian Antarctic stations are required to have their appendix removed. This is because there is usually only one doctor on station during winter, and evacuation back to medical care in Australia is impossible for at least part of the year. The requirement dates from the 1950s, when an Australian Antarctic doctor developed appendicitis on Heard Island and required a very challenging evacuation back to Australia. 

In 1961 a Russian doctor successfully removed his own appendix at Novolazarevskaya station in Antarctica. With no outside help possible, he used local anaesthetic and had two expeditioners assist with surgical retractors and a mirror so that he could see what he was doing. The operation was a success and the doctor was back on duty within two weeks. It's not a situation that Australian Antarctic doctors would like to find themselves in!

As part of their overall medical review, all expeditioners are required to have a dental check before they depart for Antarctica within six months of their departure date. There is no requirement for expeditioners to have their wisdom teeth removed unless the dentist identifies that they may cause a problem over winter. The station doctor has eight days of training in emergency dentistry as part of their preparation, but this does not include wisdom teeth extraction.