Chances are that if you’ve ever traveled to a foreign country, you’ve probably been advised that it’s wise to immunize. There are a huge range of vaccines available these days, some mandatory, some a matter of choice.
Places like Canada, Australia, and Europe probably won’t require extra vaccines, though if traveling through third world countries or places stricken by poverty, you might choose to vaccinate yourself against common diseases like typhoid, hepatitis, and influenza.
And it’s always important to research whether a country requires mandatory vaccines before allowing you to enter (ie you’ll need the yellow fever vaccine for traveling to parts of Africa and South America).
If you’re looking for a full list of the most common travel immunizations, please refer to this post. After you’ve decided that you need / want an immunization, the following are important things you need to know before getting the needle.
Important Things to Know About Travel Vaccinations
We use the terms ‘vaccine’ and ‘immunization’ interchangeably to the same meaning, as has become common culture. However there are differences between the two terms, and this is important to understand when having medical discussions.
Vaccination is when a vaccine is administered to you, which usually happens by injection. Immunisation is what happens in your body after the vaccine takes effect.
What happens is, the vaccine stimulates your immune system so that it can recognise the disease and protect you from future infection (i.e. you become immune to the disease / develop an immunity).
Vaccines are used to immunise people against infectious diseases, therefore the vaccine is the needle you get, and the immunization is what happens in your body after the vaccine has been administered.
Mandatory Vaccines Vary Depending on Risk
Countries have both mandatory and optional vaccines depending on the associated risk, though each country issues its own regulations and advice, so it’s important to research the specific country you’re visiting.
And it’s important to note that recommendations often change and depend on your health status and what you do in the country, so don’t base your knowledge on what you had to do 10 years ago and assume that everything is the same.
For instance, if you are planning to travel to Thailand, you will need a mandatory Typhoid vaccine, as well as records to show that your injections for Hepatitis A and Tetanus are up to date.
But, if you’re doing extra activities like trekking in the Thai countryside or staying for longer periods of time, it is advised you also cover yourself against Hepatitis B and Rabies, and seriously consider having the influenza vaccine.
The mandatory Typhoid vaccine is because the disease is very common in SouthEast Asia, which elevates travelers’ risk of contracting it. Conversely, Cambodia needs a mandatory Hepatitis A vaccine, due to the high risk of contracting the disease in that country.
These variations apply all across the world, and it is up to the traveler to find out what vaccines are mandatory. You can see your local travel doctor, or consult platforms like PharmaVaccs for all recent information on mandatory and optional vaccinations.
Don’t Call Their Bluff on Mandatory Vaccines
Countries which enforce mandatory vaccines often require proof of your vaccination at the airport upon arrival; for instance you will have to present your yellow fever certificate at passport control to gain entry.
You might find throughout your travels that many countries who require mandatory vaccinations may not check or ask for your certificate, but it’s important not to call their bluff on this.
If you happen to rock up without proof of a mandatory vaccination, and they do decide to ask you for it, you might find that you’re forced into having it administered it to you on the spot.
Personally, I would much prefer an injection to be administered in a hygienic local clinic rather than an unknown backroom in the airport of a developing country where the needle may have been used a repeated number of times.
Pro tip: Don't call a country's bluff on a mandatory travel vaccination. You might have to have it at the airport :O!Click To Tweet
Don’t Ignore Optional Vaccines
When it comes to travel vaccinations, the key difference between mandatory and optional ones is that, you need a certificate for those that are mandatory, to present at the airport upon arrival.
Many travelers forgo optional vaccines for no real reason other than it’s not mandatory to do so, but risks still exist even if you’re not being forced to take it.
For instance, if you want to travel to China, Typhoid is a mandatory vaccine. The optional vaccines are Hepatitis A, Chicken Pox, Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Polio.
While you don’t need a certificate for these vaccines, there is always a risk that you can catch the associated diseases while in China. As such, it’s always best to take the precautionary measure of taking the recommended vaccinations as well.
Remember, it’s your body, and the last thing you want is to get sick while in a foreign nation.
Timing is Important
While you can get vaccinated a few days before traveling, it’s always important to seek advice from a doctor on the right time to get vaccinated. This is because vaccines take time before they start working.
On average, there is usually a 1 to 2-week window before you are fully protected, and even if you’re only getting a vaccination because it’s mandatory, if you have to get it, you may as well make sure the vaccination is actually working.
In essence, if you know ahead of time that you will travel, incorporate vaccines into your planning. Get in touch with your doctor about two months before the travel date, and get all the information you need about the vaccines you’ll have to take.
It’s important too to keep up to date health records so that you know which vaccines you have and haven’t had, and which vaccines you need again. These records are just as important as your passport, and you should treat them that way.
Losing track of your past immunizations will likely mean being subjected to a continual string of doctors chairs before each trip, and I’ve never met a single person who has outright enjoyed the experience of paying to be stabbed in the arm.
For instance, a booster for the yellow fever vaccine is recommended every 10 years, so it’s important to know when you last had the injection. And, if you lose your certificate for mandatory vaccinations you’ll have to get it again before your next trip.
Vaccines Have Side Effects
Some vaccines have side effects, and this is also why it’s a good idea to have a vaccine administered a couple of weeks in advance of your trip. Side effects could be anything from an allergic reaction to a compromised immunity.
Most side effects are not fatal, and it’s worth noting that most people may not experience any side effects at all, but as with any type of medication, vaccines affect every individual differently.
It’s important to speak to your doctor about potential side effects that could arise from specific vaccines, and they can talk you through the process, and advise on your specific medical history.
If you do experience any side effects from your vaccination, it’s likely only to last a few days. For instance, a Hepatitis A vaccine is likely to give you mild fever for a day or two. So keep this in mind when you’re scheduling your doctors appointment.