Vaccinations & Diseases

Being jabbed in the arm is probably the last thing on your mind when you are planning to travel but, depending on where you are going, it might be required to prevent a far worse fate – getting a disease. It is an unfortunate reality that many of the diseases that have been eliminated in the developed world are still prevalent in developing countries.

Whether it’s the bird flu, ebola or more commonly malaria, travelers run the risk of being exposed to a variety of diseases when they cross international borders. Don’t freak out, there are steps you can take to protect yourself, starting with travel vaccines.

1. Which Vaccinations Do I Need to Travel?

Thankfully it won’t be necessary to get vaccinated for most of your journeys overseas. However, your destination is not the only factor.

There are a variety of criteria that will determine whether or not you should get a jab in the arm.

Read through the following questions to see if you are at a higher risk and therefore should get vaccinated:

Schedule of vaccinations

How old are you?

As a general rule, children and the elderly have a lower tolerance to disease and are more susceptible to infection.

What is your current health like?

People who are currently ill are at a greater risk of infection due to a compromised immune system.

Are you visiting an affected area?

Some diseases are confined to rural areas only, while others might be spread throughout an entire country. We are currently putting together an interactive map that will give you an idea of which areas you might need to get vaccinated.

When are you traveling?

Seasonality plays a major factor. During the rainy season mosquitos are rampant and your risk is much higher.

What activities will you be doing?

Adventurous travelers are more likely to be exposed.

How long you will be staying?

Are you planning on staying just a few days or a few months? The longer you stay, the greater the risk of being infected.

Required vaccinations

There are some destinations that require proof that you have been vaccinated for certain diseases. If you are planning a trip to Africa, South America or Asia, there are certain regions where you will be required to get a yellow fever vaccination in order to travel there.

You must also provide evidence of vaccination against meningococcal and polio when traveling to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj or Umrah.

Yellow fever is the only immunization that the World Health Organization (WHO) require for travelers. Yellow fever is typically transmitted through mosquito bites in warmer climates.

All vaccinations must be recorded and presented on an official International Certificate of Vaccination, also known as the “yellow card.” The certificate is valid 10 days after the primary vaccination and lasts 10 years.

2. When and Where Do I Get Vaccinated?

Spontaneous trips are great but it is important to know that some destinations require you to plan ahead. Unfortunately, it is not simply a matter of a quick visit to the doctor the day before you are due to fly out.

Make an appointment with your family doctor for advice about which travel vaccinations you might need. Alternatively, if you live in a major city,  you can visit a private travel vaccination clinic. They will not only be able to provide advice and administer your vaccinations but can also tell you about protecting yourself from malaria.

We suggest consulting with your medical provider at least 8 weeks prior to departure in order to allow sufficient time to complete the vaccination schedule. Some vaccinations require multiple doses that cannot be taken at one time and need to be completed well in advance so that they can work properly.

Note: There is no single vaccination schedule that fits all travelers.

You should also clarify with your doctor if your existing routine vaccinations are up-to-date, such as polio and tetanus. If they’re not, arrange to have a booster.

See our table – Which Travel Vaccinations Do I Need? for more info.

Getting a flu vaccination
Getting a flu vaccination

How long do the shots last?

Here are some of the most common vaccination and booster requirements:

  • Chicken Pox – 10 years (possibly life)
  • Cholera (oral vaccine) – 2 years
  • Diphtheria – 10 years
  • Flu vaccine (Fluvax) – 1 year
  • Hepatitis A (Vaqta / Havrix/Twinrix) – 20 years (possibly longer)
  • Hepatitis B (HBVax II/Engerix B/Twinrix) – life
  • Japanese B Encephalitis – 3 years
  • Measles, Mumps, Rubella – 15 years (possibly life)
  • Meningitis (Menomune/Mencevax) – 1-3 years
  • Pneumonia (Pneumovax) – 5 years (possibly life)
  • Polio (Sabin) – 10 years (possibly life)
  • Polio (IPV) – 10 years (possibly life)
  • Rabies (pre exposure) – 10 years (possibly life)
  • Tetanus – 10 years
  • Typhoid – 3 years
  • Yellow Fever – 10 years

Source: The Travel Doctor

3. Precautions

Vaccinations should not be given during a pregnancy due to the risk of harming the unborn child. Where possible, avoid travel to affected areas during your pregnancy. If you currently suffer from a disease or illness such as diabetes, HIV, or have recently undergone radio/chemo therapy there are additional risks involved so be sure to tell your doctor in advance.

Many countries impose extremely harsh penalties for the possession and/or trafficking of illegal drugs. South East Asia has some of the strictest drug laws in the world and the death penalty is common place. If you are traveling through this part of the world use extreme caution and declare any prescription medication you might be carrying to a customs agent.

Whatever you do don’t get conned into carrying drugs for others. There are far too many cases of backpackers getting caught and your government will not be able to help you.

4. Common Traveler Diseases

We have put together a table of the most common travel diseases and their vaccination schedules including what symptoms to looks out for and what to do.

The following diseases are discussed: Yellow Fever, Dengue Fever, Cholera, Typhoid, Meningococcal Meningitis, Rabies, Hepatitis A & B, Japanese Encephalitis, Influenza (Flu), Polio, Diphtheria, Ebola, and Chikungunya.

Click here or on the image below to view the interactive table.

Travel Vaccinations Table

5. Malaria

Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease which is widespread in many tropical and subtropical countries. It is contracted through the bite of a mosquito that is carrying the malaria parasites in its saliva.

The species of mosquito that carries the malaria parasites is the Anopheles mosquito. These parasites enter the bloodstream when bitten by an infected mosquito and then migrate to the liver where they multiply before returning back into the bloodstream to invade the red blood cells.

The parasites continue to multiply inside the red cells until they burst, releasing large numbers of free parasites into the blood plasma causing the characteristic fever associated with the disease. This phase of the disease occurs in cycles of approximately 48 hours.

Mosquito

Affected destinations

Malaria occurs in over 100 countries and more than 40% of the people in the world are at risk. Throughout Central and South America, Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and Oceania are all considered malaria-risk areas.

Anybody traveling to an area where malaria is endemic is at risk of catching the disease. Be aware of the fact that adventure travelers are usually more exposed to malaria than ordinary travelers due to the nature of their activities and the fact that they travel to the more remote locations.

Prevention

Mosquitoes bite at any time of day but you will find the most activity at dawn and dusk. When you are out at night make sure to use an insect repellent with DEET. If you are more susceptible to being bitten, cover up with a long-sleeved top and pants.

Depending on the risk of malaria in the area you are traveling to, you may be advised to take anti-malaria medication. The choice of medication will depend on a range of factors including drug resistant patterns of malaria in the areas you visit.

Antimalarials will need to be taken before, during and after your visit, preferably with or after a meal and continue to take them after you have returned. It should be noted that no drugs are 100% effective.

Side Effects

It is widely known that antimalarials can have some nasty side effects such as: nausea, mouth ulcers, blurred vision and photosensitivity (an increased risk of getting sunburnt).

Symptoms

Symptoms of malaria include fever and flu-like illness, including shaking chills, headache, muscle aches, and tiredness. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea may also occur. Malaria may cause anemia and jaundice (yellow coloring of the skin and eyes) because of the loss of red blood cells.

If not promptly treated, it may cause kidney failure, seizures, mental confusion, coma, and death. The World Health Organization estimates that each year 300-500 million cases of malaria occur worldwide and more than two million people die of malaria.

For most people, symptoms begin 10 days to 4 weeks after infection, although a person may feel ill as early as 8 days or up to 1 year later. Two kinds of malaria, P. vivax and P. ovale, can relapse; some parasites can rest in the liver for several months up to 4 years after a person is bitten by an infected mosquito. When these parasites come out of hibernation and begin invading red blood cells, the person will become sick.

Treatment

If you become ill with a fever or flu-like illness while traveling (and even up to one year after returning home) you should immediately seek professional medical care. It is important to tell your doctor that you have been traveling in a malaria-risk area.

Malaria can be cured with prescription drugs. The type of drugs and length of treatment depend on which kind of malaria is diagnosed, where the patient was infected, the age of the patient and how severely ill the patient was at the start of treatment.

6. Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)

Sexually transmitted diseases and infections, commonly referred to as STDs and STIs, are diseases that are transmitted by means of human sexual behavior, including vaginal intercourse, anal sex and oral sex.

Travelers engaging in casual sex run the risk of infection with a sexually transmitted disease, especially when practicing unprotected sex.

Amsterdam red light district
Amsterdam red light district

Common sexually transmitted infections

  • Chlamydia
  • Gonorrhea
  • Hepatitis B
  • Genital Herpes
  • Syphilis
  • Scabies
  • HIV/AIDS

Practice safe sex

Regardless of your gender, you should carry quality condoms with you at all times rather than try to obtain them at the last minute. Although it is important to remember that condoms provide a barrier but not complete protection.

You should be aware that a person infected with an STD, HIV or Hepatitis B may appear perfectly healthy and may not even know that they are infected.

If you think believe there is a chance you may have been infected, make an appointment for a thorough check up with your doctor or VD clinic.

HIV/AIDS

It is difficult to be sure about the risk of HIV infection in different parts of the world. However, it is clear that the infection is widespread and although the risk is high amongst homosexual and intravenous drug using groups, on a global scale, it is primarily a heterosexually spread disease.

Large numbers of the population in many parts of Africa are infected and AIDS is common. Infection is also widespread in other countries throughout Asia and South America where a high proportion of prostitutes are infected.

Tattoos & piercings

When you think of having a tattoo or piercing done, remember that it involves your skin being pierced and forming an open sore. Unhygienic practices, such as unsterilized needles or use of a needle between clients could result in an infection or cross-contamination with dire consequences.

If you are thinking of getting a tattoo or piercing while overseas, ensure the artist practices in a safe manner.

6. Other Resources

Are you looking for more detailed information about specific diseases or vaccinations? We suggest that you contact your nearest travel clinic doctor or visit one of the following websites: