Travel to other countries and climates can expose you to serious disease and health risks. Dangerous diseases which may not be present in your home country – such as malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever and rabies – are more likely to be present in tropical and sub-tropical destinations, many of which are very popular with backpackers and other longer-term travellers.
The good news is that vaccines have been developed to protect people against many of these diseases, so it’s important to plan carefully and check which vaccinations and/or antimalarial tablets are recommended for the areas you’re visiting.
Which travel vaccinations will I need?
Some vaccinations such as rabies may be recommended for specific types of trips, taking into account the length of your stay and the activities you’re planning, while others will be recommended for all travellers to certain destinations.
Your first port of call should be your GP or Practice Nurse who can assess your health risks. They will check that your primary vaccination courses and boosters are up to date as recommended for normal life in the UK or your home country (such as polio or tetanus). They will also be able to tell you which additional vaccinations are recommended for your chosen destinations, which could include typhoid, tuberculosis, rabies, Japanese encephalitis, hepatitis B and cholera.
They will ask you about your trip and make recommendations based on considerations such as the countries and regions you are visiting; the time of year you are travelling; where you are staying (urban or rural; camping or hotels; etc); how long you will be staying; your age and general health; the activities you have planned; any work you might engage in; and your potential for contact with animals.
Which diseases can be vaccinated against?
Many diseases can be vaccinated against, including:
Tetanus: a serious infection of the nervous system contracted through dirty cuts or scratches. Usually this vaccination is given in childhood but a booster may be required to bring it up to date.
Typhoid and hepatitis A: diseases spread through contaminated food and water. Typhoid causes septicaemia while hepatitis A causes liver inflammation and jaundice.
Cholera: a disease spread through contaminated water and food, most common during floods and rainy seasons. Volunteers working in slum situations, refugee camps or or war zones may consider vaccination.
Tuberculosis: a disease transmitted via droplet infection, with a higher risk for those working with local people for a prolonged period of time (several months).
Diphtheria: an upper respiratory tract illness spread by droplet infection as a result of close personal contact. Vaccination is usually advised if travellers are likely to have close contact with locals in risk areas.
Hepatitis B: a disease spread through infected blood, contaminated needles and sexual intercourse. It affects the liver and causes jaundice and sometimes liver failure.
Japanese encephalitis: a brain infection spread by mosquitoes. Vaccination may be advised for those visiting risk areas who are unable to avoid mosquito bites, are staying for long periods (e.g. a month), and are visiting rural areas.
Rabies: a fatal disease spread through bites or licks on broken skin from an infected animal. Vaccination may be advised for those travelling to risk areas who will be remote from a reliable source of vaccine if they are bitten. Even if you’ve had a pre-exposure vaccine you still need to seek urgent medical attention if you suffer an animal bite (or lick to an open wound).
If you’re travelling from areas with risk of yellow fever transmission you will also be required to have a yellow fever vaccination and carry the certificate to prove you have received this.
Do vaccines have side effects?
Each vaccine has some possible side effects – but often you will experience no more than a bit of temporary soreness, redness, or swelling at the injection site. Your GP or Practice Nurse will be able to warn you about any potential side effects, but luckily severe reactions are rare.
Will I have to pay for travel vaccinations?
For British citizens many vaccination are provided free of charge by the NHS, but you may have to pay for some less ‘standard’ vaccinations such as Japanese encephalitis, rabies or yellow fever. Your GP or Practice Nurse will be able to tell you which (if any) you need to pay for. The fee at your NHS doctor’s surgery will generally be cheaper than at private travel clinics.