Vaccinations for travel

Dec 21st 2019

Lots of diseases that have been wiped out in the west are still prevalent around the world, especially in the tropics.

If you’re travelling to a higher risk country, you’ll probably want some vaccinations before you go to give your immune system a boost.

In this post, I’ll be covering how to find which vaccinations you’ll need, where and when to get them, and explaining some of the common ones that I’ve had.

And just before we start: having vaccinations is not an excuse to take risks, you’ll still need to take precautions around things like drinking water and insect bites.

Finding the ones you need

For some countries: North America, Australia, most of Europe – you probably won’t need any vaccines at all.

Generally, you’ll only need a handful and they’ll last for at least a couple of years.

There are a few resources for finding the vaccines you need for specific countries:

The way you travel also factors in choosing vaccines, some activities mean you’ll be at a higher risk of catching certain diseases.

Higher risk activities include camping, travelling in rural areas, and trekking. If you’re on a package holiday or staying in major cities you’ll be less at risk than if you’re visiting the rainforest or backpacking.

When to start thinking about it

Some vaccines require multiple doses over a period of time, and some require time for you to develop immunity. Generally, you should book an appointment with a GP or travel clinic at least 2 months before travel.

If you leave it really late you might still get some cover, I had my typhoid vaccine a few days before flying to Morocco.

Where to get them

You can get vaccinations from your GP or a travel clinic. In the UK your doctor might be able to offer some free NHS vaccinations, but not all vaccines are covered, and not all GP practices offer them.

As for me, I prefer to get mine privately – it’s more expensive but I’m usually in and out within 15 minutes. I’m based in Cardiff so I use Nomad Travel, but there are lots of private travel clinics or pharmacies that offer vaccinations.

The ones I have

Very few vaccinations are actually required, and there’s every chance you can ignore them and be totally fine.

Personally I’d much rather spend a few hundred pounds upfront (over a period of years) than have a trip ruined by a random disease, especially since I’m a frequent traveller and often to fairly remote parts of the world.

Also fun fact: if you do get sick, medical evacuation is really expensive.

So here are the vaccines I’ve chosen to get:

MMR

Measles, Mumps, and Rubella are viruses that spread through the air. Outbreaks are common in Africa and Asia but also happen in developed countries.

These form part of UK childhood vaccinations so I should have lifetime protection. Anyone born before 1990 might not have had the full round of shots though.

Diphtheria/Tetanus/Polio

Diphtheria is a disease caused by inhaling water vapour when an infected person coughs or sneezes around you. Tetanus is spread by bacteria getting into a cut or a wound. Polio is contracted through contaminated food and water.

These aren’t common in the west anymore, although the UK still gets a handful of tetanus cases every year.

Vaccinations against these 3 are also a standard part of UK childhood vaccinations but you’ll need a booster every 10 years. You’ll get a teenage booster at 14 so your next is due at 24.

Typhoid

Typhoid is common worldwide and spreads through contaminated food and water.

You only need one dose and it should last for 3 years.

Hepatitis A

Another one that spreads through contaminated food and water, this virus is common in developing countries.

There are a few options for hep A vaccines, it can be combined with a typhoid or hep B shot. I had the regular hepatitis A vaccination, with a booster a year later, which should cover me for the next 25 years.

Hepatitis B

A liver disease that spreads through contaminated bodily fluids and blood. You can catch it anywhere but it’s most common around Asia and Africa.

I’ve struggled with the Hepatitis B vaccine since there was a UK shortage a few years back. This year I’ve finally managed them sorted.

I had 3 doses over the course of a month, protecting me for 5 years.

Rabies

Rabies is a virus that’s spread by the saliva of infected animals, mostly dogs. Once symptoms set in, rabies in humans is almost always fatal.

The rabies vaccine is a little weird because it’s a series of 3 pre-exposure vaccines, if you’re bitten by a rabid animal you’ll need a further 2 post-exposure shots as soon as possible.

The pre-exposure shots give your body antibodies, meaning your immune system can respond immediately when it receives the post-exposure vaccines.

If you don’t have the pre-exposure shots and you’re bitten, you’ll need to have the full 5 shots. Four are rabies vaccine, and one is short term antibodies to fight the virus while your immune system produces its own.

Either way: you’ll need immediate medical treatment if you’re bitten by a rabid animal. This means its generally down to traveller preference about whether you bother to get the pre-exposure rabies vaccine.

I’ve chosen to get them since I travel to remote parts of the world where the full vaccine might not be readily available. Now I’ve had the initial 3 shots, I’ll need a booster in 10 years.

Malaria

A disease spread by mosquitos in the tropics. Symptoms can kick in from a week after exposure and can rapidly become fatal.

There’s no vaccine for malaria but you can take anti-malaria tablets to reduce the risk. There are four or five main options and its one to discuss with your vaccination nurse.

I use Doxycycline when travelling in malaria-prone areas. I take one tablet a day and start a few days before I travel, you do have to take it for 4 weeks after you return though.

And the ones I haven’t

Yellow Fever

This is a disease spread by infected mosquitos, its present in Africa and South America.

Some countries will require you to prove you have this vaccine before allowing you to enter. This means you’ll need to get the shot from an official yellow fever vaccination centre.

I’ve never travelled to a Yellow Fever infection area so I don’t have this vaccine.

Tick-borne Encephalitis

An infection spread by tick bites (it’s very well named). It’s found in Russia, China, and most of Europe – including England.

I don’t have this vaccine as the chance of infection is very low, and I always take precautions against insect bites when hiking in risk areas.

Japanese Encephalitis

Another infection spread by mosquito bites, it occurs in Asia and the Far East.

Infection rates are rare and only 1 in 250 infected people will develop more serious symptoms, so I’ve chosen not to have this vaccine.

Wrapping it up

You’ll need to discuss vaccinations with your GP or travel nurse, some are affected by different medications and medical conditions.

You’ll also need to be aware of possible side effects, any injection will give you redness and some pain, but more series side effects are rare – I’ve never experienced any.

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I'm Luke, a twenty-something web developer from Cardiff. Occasionally I travel to some pretty cool places. More about me