Vaccinations prevent us from getting potentially harmful diseases by exposing our immune systems to a tiny amount of the virus or bacteria that causes them. Our bodies then produce the antibodies needed to fight off the disease, giving us a level of natural protection.
Because of the diseases that you may come into contact with in some destinations around the world, particularly those in far-flung, tropical countries, you may need to have one or more travel vaccinations before you go. At the time of publishing this article, some of the countries for which travel vaccinations are recommended include Indonesia, Bali, Cambodia, India, and parts of China.
If you’re a frequent traveller to exotic locations, you may already have had many of the travel vaccinations that you might need. However, if you’ve tended to travel closer to home, it’s likely that you have never needed any travel vaccinations before heading off on holiday. As a result, you won’t have had any that are vital for travelling to far-flung locations. It’s important to remember though, that the recommended travel vaccinations for any particular country can change at any time, due to outbreaks of infectious illnesses or depending on the season or the time of year that you choose to visit.
Therefore, wherever and however you choose to travel, it’s vital to be aware of the travel vaccinations you might need beforehand. Here’s what you need to know.
Outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases
Sometimes, for a number of different reasons, it’s possible for a disease that’s usually preventable via vaccination to affect and spread rapidly to a number of people in a particular area. Measles is a good example; there have been several measles outbreaks in the UK since October 2017, including in Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Surrey. These UK-based measles outbreaks are connected to larger outbreaks in Europe – the World Health Organisation recorded more than 41,000 cases of the disease across the continent in the first half of 2018 alone.
Measles is a highly contagious, potentially serious disease that can be fatal in rare cases. It tends to be more severe in adults than in children, particularly for people who may already have a long-term health condition. There is no treatment for measles, which is why vaccinating against it is so important.
In this country, all children between 9 and 10 years of age are offered a free vaccination against measles, as part of the combined vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). It’s also available to anyone who may not have been vaccinated as a child, for free if they are under the age of 25.
With regards to measles, current advice from the NHS is for anyone travelling to Europe to ensure they are up to date with their MMR vaccine, especially if they are planning to travel to Italy, Germany or Romania. If you’re not sure whether you are protected, you can check with your GP.
How can I check which travel vaccinations I need?
As our above example shows, there may be travel vaccinations you may not be aware that you need, so your first port of call should always be your doctor, especially if you have an existing medical condition.
Remember that there are many factors that can affect whether or not you might need a travel vaccination before you head overseas, including the time of year you’ll be travelling, the area of the country, how rural the area is, how long you’ll be staying and what you’ll be doing while you’re there. Don’t assume that you won’t need a travel vaccination, even if you’re due to go somewhere you’ve been many times before. It’s always best to check.
Your doctor will be able to let you know the latest travel vaccination advice for your chosen destination, as well as anything you may need to be aware of in terms of your personal health. You should aim to see your GP at least eight weeks before you are due to travel so that any vaccinations you need have time to take effect. You can also take a look at the NHS Fit for Travel and Travel Health Pro websites for more information about travel vaccinations, but we would always recommend seeing your doctor too.
Many travel vaccinations are usually available free of charge on the NHS, including typhoid, hepatitis A and cholera, although there are some you may need to pay for. If you do need one or more vaccinations, your GP can help you arrange them or put you in touch with a travel vaccination clinic.
Can I have travel vaccinations if I have an existing medical condition?
In most cases, there’s no reason why having a long-term health condition should mean that you cannot have a travel vaccination.
Having said that, there may be occasions when having certain treatments or undergoing certain surgical procedures can lower your immune system and make you too vulnerable to be exposed to some vaccines. This is known as immunosuppression and it can be caused by having treatment for cancer, or as a result of having an organ transplant. If this is the case for you, your doctor may advise that you shouldn’t have certain vaccinations, and therefore should not travel to destinations where they are needed.
There’s more information about getting travel vaccinations when you have an existing medical condition in our Guide to travelling with pre-existing conditions.
What about antimalarials?
If you’re due to visit a country where there is a risk of malaria, you should always check with your GP whether you should take anti-malarial medication. Unlike most travel vaccinations, which are administered by injection, antimalarials are taken in tablet form. To ensure adequate protection against malaria, a course of anti-malarial medication must be started a couple of days before you are departing for your trip, taken throughout your time away, and for several days or weeks after you return.
At the moment, regions that carry a risk of malaria include large parts of Africa and Asia, some Pacific islands, parts of the Middle East, Haiti and the Dominican Republic and Central and South America. Be sure to speak to your GP at least eight weeks before your departure date if you are planning to visit any of these areas of the world.
Travel insurance and travel vaccinations
Some countries require travellers to show proof that they are vaccinated against certain diseases before they are allowed entry, such as all African countries, where you will need to show proof of immunisation against yellow fever.
Yet, while many other countries have no statutory vaccination requirements, it’s worth bearing in mind that the question of whether you have all of the recommended up-to-date travel vaccinations for your chosen destination may have an impact on your travel insurance. Not having the right vaccinations could even mean that a travel insurance claim becomes invalid, so make sure to check what you need with your GP every time you travel.