I’m just going to come out and say it: I don’t believe in travel vaccinations. Or at least, I don’t believe in getting vaccinated to the hilt before traveling. Here’s why, along with some guidelines for what to get (and when, and where), as well as what 17 other travelers do.
Travel Vaccinations: A Money Grab?
Years ago (in my pre-Professional-Hobo days), I took a vacation to South Africa. Knowing I’d be in malaria-land and visiting various spots with potential for exotic ailments, I visited a travel clinic in Canada and asked what I needed to do.
The doctor gave me a list of “highly recommended” vaccinations, including (but not limited to) the full range of hepatitis shots, malaria medication, and a yellow fever shot just for good measure. In addition to the travel clinic visit charges, this amounted to hundreds of dollars in vaccinations requiring multiple visits.
When I balked at the hepatitis vaccination regime, the doctor put a map of the world in front of me.
“All the blue countries on this map are countries that have a hepatitis problem. So really, if you want to travel at all, you should have these vaccines,” he said, logically.
Just about every country on the map was blue, except for North America.
When I told a friend visiting from the UK what happened, he said “Isn’t that funny. Before I started my trip, I went to a travel clinic in the UK. They put that same map in front of me! Except every country on my map was blue except for Europe!”
Hepatitis exists around the world. Granted in some countries it’s more of a going concern than in others. But why the push for vaccinations only if we travel? A conspiracy theorist could have a field day with this topic, with suggestions of travel vaccinations not only being a money-grab, but also wider theories about the alternate agendas of pharmaceutical companies, or even certain societal “fear mongering” tactics about travel.
I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but neither will I dismiss the idea that not all travel vaccinations are recommended with our best intentions as the first priority.
Travel Vaccinations: Dangerous?
I’ll admit, when I walked into the travel clinic before my trip to South Africa, I was already leery of travel vaccinations. A few years prior, a friend of mine was going to Africa to do some aid work. She got all the recommended travel vaccinations (which were many), and then, because of a complication with one of the vaccinations, she spent six months paralyzed from the waist down. I don’t know the specifics of what happened, but was led to believe that it was a rare complication that can occur with one of the vaccinations she got.
In a world of playing the odds (as we do), you might say she had a greater chance of contracting whatever disease she was being vaccinated against, than experiencing this complication – thus validating the vaccination. But if the chances of contracting said disease was remote to begin with, and especially after hearing of this story, it made me wonder how wholly necessary many travel vaccinations are to begin with.
When You Must Get a Travel Vaccination
Depending on where you travel, you may require evidence of some travel vaccinations; yellow fever is a prime example. For example, if you’ve just been to a country with a yellow fever problem (which includes much of South America and Africa), you might be required to show proof of vaccination when entering other countries afterwards. Apparently it’s rarely requested, but occasionally required.
So if you’re planning on chilling in parts of the Amazon where yellow fever is a problem, you may well want this vaccination for both legal ease and peace of mind.
Where to Get Travel Vaccinations
When I took off to travel full-time, I didn’t know all the places I’d visit (I still don’t). Thus, given that I already didn’t think much of travel vaccinations, I didn’t get anything before I left Canada.
It was a good decision, because I later discovered that travel clinics exist all over the world; if you need a vaccination along the way, you can get it as and when you need it – often costing much less than you’d pay at a travel clinic at home.
What Other Travelers Do
In writing this post, I polled the travel community to find out what they do about travel vaccinations. I got a lot of different responses, including:
I get vaccinations for the same reason I buy travel insurance. I hope they are unnecessary and a waste of time and money, but if I can save myself a lot of time and hassle by getting a stupid shot, that is some real value in my book. -Robb
Haven’t vaccinated since 6th grade – I’m 32 now and I’ve had nothing except Dengue in Mexico. Everyone I know who vaccinates and gets flu-shots is routinely sick. If I’m required to have vaccinations to enter a country, I simply will not go. The best way to stay healthy is to eat well and avoid doctors at all costs. – Josh
Ditto, went to India and ate drank etc everything and the other 18 people all missed at least one day. Besides, I hear mercury and all the other bad things in vaccines are not that good for our health. – Laird
….and then you get that international vaccine card. The yellow one. Great device for avoiding hassle at some border crossings. – Mike
Nada, nothing, never. And it has never been a problem. – Cacinda
I don’t get everything, but I think it’s important to evaluate it with a knowledgeable travel clinic/doctor. Yellow fever and hepatitis A and B are important. – Jamie
I follow what my doctor recommends. Some travel vaccinations aren’t really necessary but I’ll take them to avoid any inconvenience. Traveler’s diarrhea is an example. Your health should be your top concern. Without it, travel isn’t possible. – Tony
Once I went on a trip and my doctor advised me to do all possible vaccinations…I had loads of them within a two month period prior to my travels, and they were pretty heavy on my body…some were unnecessary but they administered them to me just “to be safe”…I believe some vaccinations may be useful, but I do not think it is healthy to overload the body with vaccinations that are done “just in case” if you travel to a low risk place. – Silvia
Yep, going in for a typhoid jab this week for a trip in January. Would rather feel yuck for a short while than get the diseases. – Jacqui
I’ve always sat down and worked out the risk, spoken to the doctor and taken them. As much as it makes you feel yucky in the short run, it’s nothing compared to what the diseases do to you once contracted and I’ve seen what it does to people. – Tara
I’ll get any and all vaccinations. There’s no reason to risk getting sick when modern medicine can prevent it. – Rachel
I only get the serious ones. Hep A/B, yellow fever etc. I got all my normal childhood vaccines and I’m almost never sick. I don’t get flu vaccines anymore. – Matt
I got only what I needed. Wished I’d gotten the cholera vaccination when I came down with it in Africa, though. Can’t win ’em all, I guess. – Crystal
I got the required ones before I went to Africa nine years ago. I’m getting them done again. Unless you have an egg allergy, they’re usually safe. I’d rather spend $300-500 every ten years than die of tetanus, or spend another three months wishing I was dead from pneumonia. – Jennifer
Only the ones I feel are most important. Doctors make money off of vaccines, why wouldn’t they recommend a whole slew? I do my own research on a destination and risks and then make my decision with the advice given by a doctor. – Nelle
I generally get them all….when you do they last for quite a while which is beneficial as a professional traveler. For example in 2006 I went to Malawi, Ghana, and Ethiopia so I had yellow fever, all the hep shots, and typhoid. All were still good when I went to Ecuador last month! It is well worth it! – Diagnosing Wanderlust
I’ve been to Western Europe several times, but the only time I got travel vaccinations was when I went to China in Fall 2008 for a three-month teaching stint. I don’t remember which ones I got, but I got them because they were so strongly recommended by about everything I read, and because an ounce of prevention seemed much better than a pound of a medical system about which I had no firsthand knowledge. If I were going to places that come with similar standard recommendations, I’d get those vaccinations too, and for the same reason. – Jeff
What are your thoughts? How do you handle travel vaccinations?
Filed Under: Life as a full-time traveler
Check the vaccines and medicines list and visit your doctor (ideally, 4-6 weeks) before your trip to get vaccines or medicines you may need.
You should be up to date on routine vaccinations while traveling to any destination. Some vaccines may also be required for travel.
Make sure you are up-to-date on routine vaccines before every trip. These vaccines include measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, and your yearly flu shot.
Get travel vaccines and medicines because there is a risk of these diseases in the country you are visiting.
CDC recommends this vaccine because you can get hepatitis A through contaminated food or water in China, regardless of where you are eating or staying.
You can get typhoid through contaminated food or water in China. CDC recommends this vaccine for most travelers, especially if you are staying with friends or relatives, visiting smaller cities or rural areas, or if you are an adventurous eater.
Ask your doctor what vaccines and medicines you need based on where you are going, how long you are staying, what you will be doing, and if you are traveling from a country other than the US.
You can get hepatitis B through sexual contact, contaminated needles, and blood products, so CDC recommends this vaccine if you might have sex with a new partner, get a tattoo or piercing, or have any medical procedures.
You may need this vaccine if your trip will last more than a month, depending on where you are going in China and what time of year you are traveling. You should also consider this vaccine if you plan to visit rural areas in China or will be spending a lot of time outdoors, even for trips shorter than a month. Your doctor can help you decide if this vaccine is right for you based on your travel plans. See more in-depth information on Japanese encephalitis in China.
You may need a polio vaccine before your trip to China if you are visiting the Xinjiang province, especially if you are working in a health care facility, refugee camp, or humanitarian aid setting. This kind of work might put you in contact with someone with polio.
- If you were vaccinated against polio as a child but have never had a polio booster dose as an adult, you should get this booster dose. Adults need only one polio booster in their lives.
- If you were not completely vaccinated as a child or do not know your vaccination status, talk to your doctor about getting vaccinated.
Rabies can be found in dogs, bats, and other mammals in China, so CDC recommends this vaccine for the following groups:
- Travelers involved in outdoor and other activities (such as camping, hiking, biking, adventure travel, and caving) that put them at risk for animal bites.
- People who will be working with or around animals (such as veterinarians, wildlife professionals, and researchers).
- People who are taking long trips or moving to China
- Children, because they tend to play with animals, might not report bites, and are more likely to have animal bites on their head and neck.
When traveling in China, you should avoid mosquito bites to prevent malaria. You may need to take prescription medicine before, during, and after your trip to prevent malaria, depending on your travel plans, such as where you are going, when you are traveling, and if you are spending a lot of time outdoors or sleeping outside. Talk to your doctor about how you can prevent malaria while traveling. For more information on malaria in China, see malaria in China.
- Get vaccinated
- Take antimalarial meds
- Eat and drink safely
- Prevent bug bites
- Keep away from animals
- Reduce your exposure to germs
- Avoid sharing body fluids
- Avoid non-sterile medical or cosmetic equipment