Over the years, the topic of vaccines, including travel vaccinations, has been rife with opinions, stories, and rumors.
I originally published this post in 2015 and decided to do some research and update this in 2018 to be a helpful resource as you decide what travel vaccinations to get (if any) before you hit the road. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
In this guide, I let you know my opinion and experiences, and I also provide plenty of information to help you form your own opinion about travel vaccines and decide which (if any) vaccines you need.
Table of Contents
My Experiences with Travel Vaccines
I’m just going to come out and say it: I personally don’t believe in getting vaccinated to the hilt before traveling.
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?
It could just be that that’s when people are asking about vaccines, so that’s when it comes up.
But 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 totally dismiss the idea that not all travel vaccinations are recommended with our best intentions as the first priority.
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.
So I decided to do some research.
What is a vaccine?
According the the World Health Organization (WHO), a vaccine is “a biological preparation that improves immunity to a particular disease.”
“A vaccine typically contains an agent that resembles a disease-causing microorganism, and is often made from weakened or killed forms of the microbe, its toxins or one of its surface proteins. The agent stimulates the body’s immune system to recognize the agent as foreign, destroy it, and “remember” it, so that the immune system can more easily recognize and destroy any of these microorganisms that it later encounters.”
So basically, when you get a flu vaccine, they’re giving you an inert version of the flu, so that, if you encounter flu bacteria in your day-to-day life later on, your body can recognize it easily and overcome it.
This is also why some people feel “flu-y” after getting a flu shot. No, the vaccine didn’t give you the flu. It’s just your immune system learning how to respond to the disease.
See also: Everything You Need to Know about Travel Insurance, complete with full glossary of terms in plain language
The Different Categories of Vaccines
There are three different categories of travel vaccinations that you’ll encounter: routine, recommended, and required.
In this section, I go over the three categories and the common vaccinations you often find in each one.
Many of us remember getting our booster shots as kids. It’s thanks to these that diseases like polio only exist in history books in most of the world.
But depending on what year you were vaccinated and what vaccines were available at the time, where you grew up, or what your parents believed, you may or may not have received all the routine vaccinations that are given to kids today.
As many of these diseases are still a problem in some countries, depending on where you’re traveling and if you got these routine vaccinations as a kid, your doctor may recommend these vaccinations before you go on your trip.
Routine vaccinations often recommended to travelers (for booster or renewal or to make sure they got it in the first place) include:
- TDaP (Tetanus, Diptheria, Purtusiss)
- Measles, Mumps, Rubella
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- Or Twinrix (Hepatitis A and B at the same time)
Recommended Travel Vaccines
Depending on where you are traveling, certain vaccines not on the routine list may be recommended. These are often the vaccines that come to mind when you think of “travel vaccines”.
Commonly recommended travel vaccines, depending on destination, can include:
- Typhoid fever
- Malaria (medication, not vaccine)
- Japanese Encephalitis
Required Travel Vaccinations
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 before entering, or 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.
Potential Risks of Vaccinations
As with any medical procedure, vaccinations can carry risk. The story of my friend who experienced temporary paralysis is an example. It’s up to you to weigh the risk of side effects against the risk of contracting a (potentially deadly) disease.
Different vaccinations have different potential side effects, so it’s important to do your research.
The CDC has a thorough guide to all potential side effects of 27 different vaccines, along with their likelihood.
Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)
Let’s go back to the story about my friend and her temporary paralysis. There are lots of stories on the news and in the grapevine these days about vaccines causing paralysis.
It turns out, it may have been Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), a rare neurological disorder that affects about one person in 100,000.
Basically with GBS, your immune system gets confused and attacks your own nervous system. This can cause anything ranging from weakness to full blown paralysis, but fortunately, it’s temporary and most people recover.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke, the exact cause of GBS is unknown, but in some cases it seems to be triggered by infections, and in rare cases, vaccinations.
Incorrectly Administered Vaccine (SIRVA)
If you’re having problems with your arm or shoulder, it may have to do with where the shot was administered on your arm, rather than the actual vaccine. This is often called SIRVA (Shoulder Injury Related to Vaccine Administration).
About half of the cases in the vaccine court in the U.S. are from SIRVA injuries rather than problems with the vaccines themselves.
To try to prevent this, make sure you wear a shirt you can pull up the sleeve on, rather than pulling your shirt down (only exposing the high part of your arm). Also make sure that the person administering your shot is trained.
Allergic Reactions to Vaccines
It’s also possible to have an allergic reaction to your vaccine.
If you have an egg, yeast, or latex allergy, make sure you’re getting vaccine brands that don’t have these allergens in the ingredients.
The Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has a great table that lists the brands of vaccines that have certain allergens in them.
Commonly Recommended Vaccinations for Travelers
Typhoid is a gastro-intestinal bacterial infection. It spreads through contaminated food and water, commonly in countries with poor hygiene and sewage. For example, if sewage contaminated with the bacteria gets into the water you drink or was used to wash your veggies.
Typhoid affects about 22 million people worldwide. If you do contract it and you recover, you can still spread the disease after you’ve recovered.
For tips on traveling through countries where the water isn’t potable, check this post out: Dealing With Parasites: A Guide to Clean Water Around the World.
Recommended for: Southeast Asia, Africa, Central and South America, and Western Pacific countries in areas where there is poor water and sewage sanitation
Malaria is spread from nighttime-biting female mosquitoes that don’t leave a welt (so you may not even know you’ve been bitten). Symptoms are flu-like, including high fever and chills.
It’s prevented not by vaccine, but with medication that only protects you as long as you’re taking it. Some malaria medication also requires you to take it for a certain amount of time prior to arriving and after leaving your destination. If you don’t take it for the full course, you can be at risk.
Choose your malaria medication/brand carefully and do your research; some brands of malaria medication carry potent side effects; other brands nullify birth control pills (even beyond the time you are taking the malaria medication).
Recommended for: malaria endemic areas in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia
Rabies is found everywhere (except Antarctica), so you may wonder why you’d need it specifically for traveling. This vaccine might be recommended if you’re traveling to a place with a large wild dog population or where there hasn’t been a strong dog-vaccination program. It’s also recommended if you’ll be in rural areas or working with animals.
Recommended for: parts of Africa, Asia, and Central and South America
You may know it as the disease from the beginning of The Secret Garden, but Cholera is still a problem in some countries. It spreads through contaminated food and water. The fluid loss from the symptoms can lead to severe dehydration. Travelers with suppressed immune systems or reduced stomach acid production (like if you take antacids or smoke cannabis) are particularly susceptible.
Recommended for: Some nations in Africa, as well as Bangladesh, India, Yemen, and Haiti
If you haven’t gotten a polio shot since you were a kid, some doctors recommend getting a booster as an adult before going to areas with polio risk or where polio is still an endemic problem.
Recommended for: polio-endemic countries Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan and possibly their neighboring countries (see map here)
There are several different types of meningitis, but they all target your brain and nervous system in your spinal cord. It can cause death in 5% to 10% of patients even if they get treatment right away. Outbreaks can occur anywhere, but the highest rate of infection happens in the “meningitis belt” of sub-saharan Africa.
Recommended for: countries with areas in the meningitis-belt of Africa (see map here)
Another mosquito-spread disease, Japanese encephalitis is most common in rural areas of Asia. It’s also higher risk in tropical and sub-tropical areas year-round, and in northern Asia is a high risk only in summer and fall.
Recommended for: Southeast Asia and Asia (see map here)
There are also several countries that require yellow fever vaccination for entry or if you’ve been to a yellow fever-endemic country recently.
Recommended for: certain parts of Africa and South America (see maps here)
How to Know What Travel Vaccines You Need
An easy way to find out what vaccines might be recommended for your destination and why is with the CDC’s “For Travelers” Tool.
Pick your destination from the drop down menu, and select what kind of traveler you are (for example, I’d choose “Study Abroad/Extended Stay because of my long-term, slow travel tendencies). Then bam: you’ll get a list of the recommended vaccinations and why you might need each, so that you can decide what will be relevant for your travels.
If you want even more information, the resources from the IAMAT go into even more depth on the healthcare situations in different countries and why certain vaccines are recommended. Just choose your destination from the dropdown menu and click Go.
Where to Get Travel Vaccinations
Okay, you’ve got your trip planned and you’ve researched your travel vaccines. Now you’re ready to get vaccinated!
Make sure you get this done at least a few weeks before your trip, especially for the super important/necessary ones like yellow fever (where they might not even let you into the country).
Here are the different places you can go to get your travel vaccinations:
Regular Healthcare Providers in Your Home Country
Talking to your family doctor about your trip is a good idea. They’re already familiar with your health history. If they don’t have the vaccines you need in stock or can’t get them, they’ll be able to refer you to a place that does.
Many hospitals and county health departments stock travel vaccines, and even Walgreens offers travel vaccines in their in-store pharmacy.
A Travel Clinic in Your Home Country
You can also go to a private travel clinic that focuses strictly on travel-related health. You can find one through the International Society of Travel Medicine directory.
Now, be warned, a lot of these clinics use scare tactics to get you to take every vaccination imaginable for your destination (like in my story from earlier). That’s why it’s important to do your research ahead of time.
A Clinic or Doctor Abroad
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.
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.
As convenient (and budget-friendly) as these may be, it’s important to make sure that these are reputable, high-quality health care providers. Depending on where you are, there may be clinics with outdated, old, or ineffective medicines that aren’t up to standard.
I’ve never used them before, but IAMAT has a free membership program that gives access to their directory of vetted, English-speaking doctors around the world. It may make it easier to make sure you get quality care while you’re abroad.
It’s Your Decision
Remember: it’s up to you what vaccinations to get or not get.
Everyone has a unique health situation, history, and travel itinerary that will impact what vaccinations should be on your list, and not everyone will be the same, even regardless of destination.
It’s important to do your own research before you talk to your doctor, and form your own opinions.
Don’t Forget Your Travel Insurance!
Whether you decide to get travel vaccinations or not, it’s super important to be insured while you’re on the road. You never know what can happen, and medical emergencies can really trim – nay, destroy – your budget (not to mention put a damper on your trip!).
To learn more about travel insurance, check out my Complete & Easy Guide to Insurance for Travelers.
You can also learn about expat insurance (and how it’s different from travel insurance) in my guide to expat insurance here.
Longer-term travelers, I’m a big fan of Safety Wing. You can apply for and renew your policy from abroad (which is less common than you think), it’s cheap, they offer both regular travel insurance (for emergencies) and remote health insurance (for a full health plan that follows you around), AND – they cover pandemics just like any other illness….which can’t be said of many insurance companies these days. Here’s everything you need to know about the best travel insurance for 2021 and beyond.
Note: If you end up purchasing an insurance policy through this link or widget, I will receive a small commission. This in no way affects your price, and helps me to keep The Professional Hobo going as a lifestyle travel resource. Thank you in advance for your support!
Travel Vaccination Resources
If you want to do even more research than what’s in this guide, here are some great resources that are generally authoritative, politically unbiased, and informative:
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Traveler’s Health
- The CDC is a major part of the US Department of Health.
- IAMAT – International Association of Medical Assistance to Travelers
- This is a non-profit organization totally focused on travel health, and it’s not associated with or funded by any insurance companies, medical tourism, pharmaceutical companies, or healthcare companies. They are totally independent!
- World Health Organization
- As a branch of the UN, their information isn’t biased based on country-of-origin (like that map I was given when I went to the travel clinic).
- This awesome (and slightly terrifying) site monitors and reports real-time on disease outbreaks around the world.
Hopefully now you feel empowered to make your own decision about travel vaccines and how to best prepare for your travels.
Have you had any experiences with diseases abroad? I had dengue and chikungunya before, and they were not pleasant. In fact, I’ve had three diseases, survived three natural disasters, a near-fatal accident, passport theft, and all kinds of mis-adventures. Got a strong stomach? Then read about it all at Brace Yourself: Travel Isn’t All Roses & Lollipops.
Was this guide helpful? Let me know in the comments!