Vaccines fall into three categories:
- Those you got when you were a kid and probably don’t need to worry about.
- Those you might not have gotten as a kid or may need booster shots for.
- Those you never got, because you haven’t been to a place that requires them.
Disclaimer: I’m not a licensed medical expert, nor do I want to be. This is travel advice from a traveler and should be double checked for accuracy. A resource list is at the bottom of this article.
Vaccines you probably have
If you grew up in the States, chances are you already have most of these vaccines. Dig out your old records, or go see your family doctor and make sure you got full doses of everything.
- MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) series
- Polio series
- Varicella (chickenpox) vaccine series - (if you haven’t had it yet)
Vaccines you might have
Tetanus-Diptheria-Pertussis vaccine: You need a booster every 10 years. Trust me one booster shot is better than chancing you’re going to step on a rusty nail in Thailand and watch some doctor stick a 5” needle in ya.
Hepatitis B vaccine series: If you’re in the US and over 25, you probably weren’t required to get this series. Hep B is a serious liver disease, that can be fatal, and does cause chronic illness. 1.25 million people in the US suffer from Hep B (CDC), and is common pretty much everywhere outside of the US and western Europe (with some exceptions.) There is a vaccine call “Twinrix” which is both Hep A and B with one needle, but you do still have to get 2 or 3 doses.
Polio: CDC recommends that even if you had the full series as a kid, you get a booster shot before going to a high risk area. Until Bill & Melinda Gates succeed in eradicating it, you should probably consider the booster shot if you’re going to Africa or Asia.
Travel Specific Vaccines
These are the kickers. You probably don’t have them, and yes, you should get them. Check the CDC website for where you are planning to travel and see what they recommend.
Hepatitis A vaccine series: Hep A is another liver disease. One in five people that get it are hospitalized and several in every thousand die from it. The biggest risk for getting Hepatitis A is through bad food or drinking water. It’s prevalent in Asia, Africa and Central and South America. Eastern Europe and Russia are moderately safe. Western Europe, North America and Australia have a very low risk. You have to get two shots, 6-18 months apart.
Typhoid Fever: A life-threatening illness that’s usually acquired by food or water that has been contaminated by feces. (Nasty). Highest risk for typhoid is in South Asia. The rest of Asia, Africa, Caribbean, Central and South America are also at risk places. You can either get a shot or take tablets for several days. The shot lasts five years, the tablets last three.
Yellow Fever: Another disease carried by mosquitoes. It’s most common in Sub-Saharan Africa and tropical South America. Some countries REQUIRE that you have this vaccination and that you carry a international vaccination certificate (it’s yellow!) that says you’ve had the shot. Every 10 years you have to get a booster shot. I’ve been to many countries that say they require it and my little yellow card has never been checked. I still feel better for having it though. Thankfully, only one shot is required.
Japanese Encephalitis: Another terrible disease carried by mosquitoes. It’s only in Asia and the South Pacific. CDC says that the risk for travelers contracting the disease is “extremely low”. But like Malaria, the more time you spend outside at night, or in rural areas, the higher your risk. If you’re only hanging out in cities, then you probably don’t need this vaccine.
If you are in the US and uninsured, consider getting the vaccines when you arrive at your destination. When did our overland trip through Africa we spent a month outfitting and hanging out with family members in Johannesburg. We took this time to get vaccinated for Hep A & B, get tetanus boosters and yellow fever shots. Total cost less than 700 Rand (that’s a $100). Same series in the US, more than $600.
If you are in the US and have insurance, make sure you get everything necessary for living in the US before you mention that you are traveling. No matter what you say, your insurance isn’t going to cover that yellow fever shot, but they will usually cover Hep A, B and Tetanus.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I am not a medical expert. These vaccination requirements and recommendations change yearly. Double check everything with a travel health professional and do some research at the sites below.