Thursday, April 23, 2015

Travel Vaccinations: Do you need them?

This is a common question among travelers to countries in Africa, South America, and South East Asia, and it's easy to just ignore it and hope for the best. But these diseases are the real deal, many of which can have a deadly outcome. First and foremost, you must visit your doctor for general health and a travel clinic for country specific recommendations.

Here are some things I have learned along the way regarding health abroad:

1. Where can I get vaccinated?

There are lots of travel clinics in the US and abroad. The US tends to have them separate from doctors' offices while in the UK it's possible to go to your registered surgery. In the Netherlands, KLM runs some of the travel clinics. You can find the nearest one to you by calling the local health department, asking your doctor, or doing a simple internet search. The one I went to in the states is called Passport Health, and they operate all over the country.

2. How do I know what vaccines I need?

The CDC (Center for Disease Control) and the US State Department websites are a good place to start. They will list recommended vaccinations and other pertinent health information. There's a good chance you will already have some of the recommended vaccines and just need a booster.

Also visit the website for the country you are planning to visit to see if there are any entry requirements. While the country may not have any entry requirements, that doesn't mean you are out of the woods. Visit a travel clinic for region- specific information. If possible, it is also a great help to bring your vaccination record to show what you have received, what you need a booster for, and new ones like yellow fever.

3. What can I expect at a travel clinic?

When you book your appointment you will need to let them know where you will be going and for how long. If you are visiting more than one country, be sure to tell them. When you arrive, the nurse (it's always been a nurse for me) will review your trip information, let you know about general health and safety advice, and provide you with printed information about the country, vaccine recommendations, and medication information. Then you will get any necessary vaccines right away all at the same time. You will be in and out in no time at all with a yellow card to prove your new vaccination history.

Even though you will be provided with printed information, you should also take some notes while you are there. Make sure you understand all of the information provided and ask questions if you don't. You control the appointment. If you need something explained again, just ask. It's their job. You may also be given prescriptions for things like anti-malaria pills and pills for travelers diarrhea. If you have insurance, they should be covered.

You will also find out about bug spray. Yes, it needs it's own paragraph because it is that important. So many nasty diseases are contracted by tiny mosquitos like dengue fever and malaria. The best way to protect yourself is to get a good bug spray or cream and use it like your life depends on it. Because sometimes it just may. All it takes is one bite, so you can't be too cautious.

4. What is it going to cost? 

Brace yourself, the price tag on these appointments can be very high, and it may not be something you have factored into your overall budget. An office visit alone can cost from $0 to upwards of $100 which includes the information packet and consultation. Then, each vaccine carries it's own price tag. Travel clinics in the US don't usually take insurance, so if you are concerned about cost, visit your primary physician first to see what's covered. When all was said and done, the clinic visit for my trip to Tanzania was around $800 for six vaccines, and my recent visit for my trip to India was about $600. All I'm saying is be prepared.

5. What else do I need to know?

Give yourself at least six weeks to get all your doctor appointments and vaccines. Some of shots (or jabs if you are in the UK) require two courses and need a couple weeks in between doses. Plan for that. And if you have everything sorted with weeks to spare, then you will have nothing to worry about except what to pack.

The longer you are on the road, the more protection you may need. For example, a short trip to major cities in India won't require the Japanese Encephalitis vaccine, but I needed it. Why? I'm going to a rural area for more than a month. Time and region matter which is why it's so important to see a specialist before your next great adventure.

Ultimately, you make the final decisions as to what vaccines to get and medications to take. The travel clinic will make recommendations, but you are the final say. Travel is risky enough without having to worry about contracting a deadly disease, so take the advice seriously.