Definition and Overview

Travelling to a different region or country can expose you to a multitude of diseases that your body is not prepared for. However, this does not mean that you have to cancel your travel plans just yet. Nowadays, travellers can protect themselves from endemic diseases by receiving the proper vaccinations, depending on where you want to go.

Travel vaccines basically work in the same manner as your regular vaccines. Vaccines, or immunizations, are solutions that provide immunity for a given disease. The vaccine usually contains a microorganism in its weakened or dead form. Alternatively, the vaccine may contain only a part of the organism, typically an antigen found on the organism's surface, or one of its toxins. The vaccine elicits a response from the body, stimulating the immune system to produce antibodies against the organism. In this manner, if the body encounters the organism again, it will be able to fight off the microbe. Vaccines are generally safe, with rare occurrences of adverse reactions.

Travel vaccines are specific immunizations given to travelers prior to going to certain areas to protect them from acquiring serious, life-threatening diseases. Travel vaccines are divided into three general kinds: routine vaccines, recommended vaccines, and required vaccines.

Routine Vaccines

These are standard basic immunizations that are included in most national health programs. These vaccines are usually given to children but may require booster shots in order to provide effective immunity. Certain diseases, such as poliomyelitis, which have been eradicated in developed countries, may still persist in others. Surprisingly, many adults are not updated with their vaccinations, and some have never been immunized at all; thus, travelling is a good way to get people vaccinated to prevent them from acquiring the disease, or, for people living in endemic areas, from transmitting it. Routine vaccines include measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, pneumococcal, hepatitis B and H. influenza B vaccines. In certain countries, the vaccines for varicella, rotavirus, human papillomavirus (HPV) and BCG for tuberculosis have also been included in routine immunizations.

Recommended Vaccines

These are immunizations given to individuals who are travelling to places where there is a high risk of exposure or contracting a specific disease. These vaccines likewise prevent certain illnesses from spreading to another region or country. Most of these vaccines target diseases that are prevalent in crowded areas with poor sanitary conditions. Recommended vaccines include cholera, hepatitis A, rabies and typhoid fever vaccines, especially when traveling to Asia and South America. Additional recommended vaccines are immunizations for Japanese encephalitis, especially when travelling to specific Asian countries, and for tick-borne encephalitis, when travelling to Russia and the Baltic states.

Required Vaccines

There are only three required vaccines, namely yellow fever, meningococcal and polio vaccines. Of these, the International Health Regulations requires only the yellow fever vaccine. Travelers going to the African continent and most countries in South and Central America are required to be immunized with the yellow fever vaccine. Some countries require this, even if the traveller only passed through a country where yellow fever is endemic, in transit. An international certificate is available as proof of yellow fever immunization. Saudi Arabia also requires meningococcal vaccination for those who are going to Mecca for the annual Hajj. Certain countries also require polio vaccination for travelers coming from countries with reports of the occurrence of wild-type poliomyelitis.

Travellers are recommended to consult a travel health specialist prior to leaving. These are experts who can advise you on specific precautions and administer the necessary vaccinations for your trip. You need to inform your specialist of your itinerary, including the specific places you will be visiting, the duration of your trip, the activities that you have planned, and the type of accommodations you will be staying in, among others. The risk for various infectious diseases differs depending on your specific location, even in the same country. A person on a quick business trip staying in a hotel in one country has a different risk for contracting diseases than a volunteer worker travelling to far-flung areas with poor hygiene and sanitation in the same country.

Ideally, you should schedule an appointment with your travel health specialist 4 to 8 weeks prior to your departure since some immunizations need a series of vaccines given over several weeks in order to be completed. In general, inactivated vaccines can be administered at the same time. Live vaccines can be administered simultaneously but should be given at different sites. If this is not possible, then they should be given a month apart. Combination vaccines offer an advantage to travellers, allowing them to receive different immunizations with a single shot. The immune responses of different persons vary, depending on several factors, such as the kind of immunization and the number of necessary doses. The onset and duration of protection conferred by different vaccines also vary.

It is important to remember that although immunizations decrease your risk of getting certain diseases, it is not always 100% effective. A traveller should still take the necessary precautions to prevent contracting illnesses. Basic preventive measures include proper hygiene and hand washing, avoidance of unclean or possibly contaminated drinks and food, and the use of insect repellants to prevent diseases with insect vectors. Aside from these, it is also worth remembering that not all infectious diseases have vaccine preparations targeted against them. Some medications can be taken prophylactically to prevent endemic diseases, like malaria and tuberculosis; however, certain illnesses, like HIV, can only be prevented by taking precautionary measures.

Many travel health experts believe that patient education is the key to a successful, disease-free travel. A number of good websites, specifically the dedicated travel health web pages of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), can help you find the nearest travel clinic in your area, alert you to important travel health updates, and can guide you as to what vaccinations you may need for your trip.

References:

  • Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • World Health Organization (WHO)
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