Any time you venture out of the developed parts of the world – where water is drinkable and where you’re unlikely to stumble upon diseased critters – getting vaccinated becomes part of travel planning. It’s annoying, and it can be expensive, but it’s a necessary process that can prevent a far worse hassle.
I’m not a doctor, so none of this is intended to replace medical advice. However, I do travel often. And though I have stupidly visited Africa, Southeast Asia and South America without getting vaccinated, I’m slightly more responsible now than I was a year (or two or five) ago, so I recognize that as travelers, it’s always in our best interest to be precautious.
Why you need travel vaccines
There are two primary reasons why you should go through the trouble of seeing you doctor and getting all your shots before flying out.
For one, the places of the world where you’re likely to get something like malaria or Hepatitis A tend to have less-than-developed medical infrastructures. So if you were to get sick while abroad, you could put yourself at serious risk of permanent damage or death in some cases. At the very least, you might find yourself spending part of your vacation in a hospital or potentially getting scammed out of a hundreds of dollars in medical care.
The other main reason is that some countries require proof of vaccination before letting you enter, and your home country might require it before letting you back in. Imagine going through the trouble of flying overseas, and then not being able to enter the country because you don’t have your vaccination paperwork. You may be held in quarantine until they can be sure you are not contaminated, or have to pay an inflated fee to get it there, assuming this is an option at all. Even after you’ve spent a week or two backpacking around South America, you may be forbidden to board your flight back home until you get vaccinated, and you may not be allowed to travel for a period after your vaccine.
No matter how annoying it sounds to get vaccinated ahead of time, all of these sound worse, no?
How to determine what travel vaccines you need
The thing about travel vaccines is that unless you go out of your way to do your homework, no one will warn you that you need one. And it’s no one’s responsibility to do so – not customs and immigration or your airline or even your tour company. It’s like showing up at immigration without a visa. If you don’t have one, that’s your bad. So where can you start?
The easiest place is the CDC website
if you’re a US citizen. Most countries have something similar that details what vaccines are required, if any, and which are recommended. This information can change at any point, due to outbreaks around the world. Typically this website is also where you’ll find information about what kind of documentation you need on you.
Of course the other crucial resource for this information is your doctor. Your doctor can give you more specific information about what you should get depending on where you’re going, how long you’ll be there, and what activities you’ll be doing abroad. Someone trekking in the Amazon for two months is obviously at greater risk than someone staying in a luxury resort in Asia for a week. Your doctor can make recommendations as needed.
When to get vaccinated before your trip
Depending on how many travel vaccines you need, you may need to plan ahead weeks or even months in advance. For instance, the Hepatitis A vaccine requires two doses, spaced out around 6 months apart. While having only one dose is acceptable and provides more protection than not having it at all, you’re obviously better off getting both of them.
Other issues may affect the timing of your vaccinations. For instance, your doctor may want to avoid giving you six different shots at once, so they might recommend spacing independent vaccinations. In some cases, as with the yellow fever vaccine in the US at the moment, availability may be limited, requiring you to wait.
It’s also important to note that in many cases a vaccine is useless if you get it less than two weeks before a trip. So if you’ve already started packing for your trip and you’re just now thinking about making a doctor’s appointment, it’s probably too late.
The good news is that with some vaccines, when you complete the whole course, you’re protected for many years, making it something you don’t have to worry about again. So the benefits certainly outweigh the trouble. At the end of the day, it could literally save your life.