Traveling around the world exposes you to many things like exotic foods, different cultures, and beautiful landscapes. And new germs and diseases.
Many of us live in the Western world where polio, measles, and diphtheria are virtually nonexistent because of vaccines.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case for most developing countries where people still suffer from vaccine-treatable diseases and proper sanitation and access to clean water.
If you’re heading overseas, it’s important to determine if you need any travel-related vaccines before you board your plane.
Some vaccines, like Yellow Fever, are required for entrance into certain countries, but the decision to get vaccinated is totally up to you. I’m not a doctor, so it’s best to talk with your physician or travel doc to determine your risk.
Common Travel Vaccines
The measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine is a routine vaccine that individuals receive as children, but it’s especially important for travel.
While measles has been declared eliminated from the U.S. since 2000, over 20 million people are diagnosed with measles every year around the world, including Europe.
In 2014 over 600 cases of measles were reported in the U.S. Most of those cases were traced back to an outbreak in the Philippines and brought back to the US through unvaccinated travelers.
The MMR vaccine is a two-shot series usually given during your childhood. The first shot is received between 12-15 months and the second between four to six years of age.
Symptoms of the illness develop typically in three to six days and include fever, chills, headache, and muscle aches. About 15% of the cases develop into a serious illness that can lead to shock, bleeding, and organ failure.
The Yellow Fever vaccine is a single live, weakened virus shot given to people between nine months and 59 years of age traveling to or living in areas where yellow fever is known to be a risk. The vaccine lasts for about 10 years.
After receiving your yellow fever vaccine you’ll receive a yellow booklet that serves as your proof of vaccination. This is known as your “International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (ICVP).”
You should carry this in your passport as you’ll need this to enter certain countries or you could be denied entrance or detained for up to six days to make sure you are not infected.
Typhoid fever is a serious disease spread by contaminated food and water commonly found throughout the developing world.
Symptoms include high fevers, stomach pains, loss of appetite, and weakness. There are over 22 million cases of typhoid fever worldwide every year that lead to about 200,000 deaths.
The typhoid vaccine comes in two forms: either a shot or a pill. The shot lasts for about two years while the pill lasts for about five years.
Both forms of vaccines are only about 50-80% effective, so you still need to be careful about what you put into your mouth.
Hepatitis A, or Hep A, is another food- and water-borne disease that leads to liver disease. It can also be spread through the hands of a person with Hep A.
Symptoms of the disease include sudden onset of fever, nausea, vomiting, jaundice, and other similar flu-like symptoms.
It is possible for some people to have no symptoms too. Most people recover from Hep A with no long-term liver damage.
Hep A is commonly found in developing countries, especially rural areas. The Hep A vaccine is given as two doses about six to 12 months apart.
In the U.S., the vaccine has been a routine childhood vaccine since 2005. Those of us born before 2005 should probably consult with our doctors to decide if the Hep A vaccine is needed.
Japanese encephalitis (JE) is a mosquito-borne disease commonly found in Southeast Asia.
Symptoms start to show in about five to 15 days and include fever, vomiting, confusion, and headache. If medical attention is not sought immediately, swelling around the brain and coma can occur possibly leading to death.
While your chances of getting JE are rare, your risk increases if you’re traveling to rural areas in Asia, you plan to be outside often, and you are traveling during high mosquito season (usually summer and fall, but year-round for tropical and subtropical regions).
The JE vaccine is a two-dose vaccine given within a 30-day window that is effective for 10 years. You should schedule your appointments so the last dose is at least 10 days before your trip.
It’s best to talk with your doctor about the JE vaccine as not all travelers will need the vaccine.
It is commonly recommended for travelers who plan to spend a minimum of one month in an endemic area during the JE virus transmission season. For a map of risk zones, see the CDC map.
The Rabies vaccine is not just for chance animal encounters. It is sometimes given to travelers who spend a great deal of their time working with wild or domestic animals, like a veterinarian or wildlife professional.
Rabies is a deadly disease caused by a virus spread through the saliva of an infected animal. The rabies virus is found throughout the world with the exception of Antarctic.
Rabies is usually transmitted to people from bites or scratches from infected dogs, bats, raccoons, and other animals. Rabies affects the central nervous system leading to brain disease and death. There is no cure.
The chances you need the rabies vaccine are slim, unless you plan to work or volunteer with animals on the road. The rabies vaccine is a three-shot series with a shot given on day 1, day 7 and day 21 or 28.
Prevention is key on the road whether you receive the vaccine or not. It’s best to avoid touching all animals including the cute dog at your hostel. Trust me, I struggle with this myself.
If an animal bites you, seek medical attention immediately.
Other Vaccines and Travel Meds
There are other travel and routine vaccinations that you might need before embarking on your trip.
Check with your doctor (many doctors have online patient portals where you should be able to print your previous immunizations) to see what you may need to help keep you healthy on the road.
Common routine vaccines include Hepatitis B, DTap, Meningococcal (especially important if you are spending an extended time in Africa), Hib, MMR, and Polio among others.
If you are unsure if you should vaccinate or not, I urge you to consult with a medical professional. Just like any medication, vaccines do have side effects, most of which are very rare.
Malaria is another common mosquito-borne disease is found in primarily tropical regions of the world.
For more information on Malaria, head over to my recent article on the topic. And, as you might have guessed by not, there are many other mosquito-borne diseases so make sure DEET is on your packing list!
Where to Get Vaccinated
You should be able to get most of these vaccines at your regular doctor’s office.
However, some travel vaccines, like Yellow Fever and Japanese Encephalitis, might only be available through specific travel clinics.
Many universities and public health clinics offer travel vaccines and consultations at discounted prices compared to private travel clinics or your doctor’s office.
When I first received most of my travel vaccines in 2010 for travel, I had to pay over $500 out-of-pocket because my health insurance did not cover them.
Thankfully, with the Affordable Care Act (ACA), many vaccines are covered under preventive care and thus are free or a minimal fee (Yellow Fever and JE will most likely not).
Travelers from countries other than the United States should check with their medical professionals about the availability of vaccines and related costs.
As a public health professional and frequent traveler and soon-to-be expat, prevention goes a long way in keeping you healthy on the road. This includes vaccines.
While the chances of you getting any of these diseases are relatively rare, they do happen. No one wants to spend their vacation hooked up to IVs in the hospital.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. Please consult with a medical professional about your travels and health risks abroad.