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The Most Important Immunizations for Travel

From parasites (yuck!) to malaria to the bird flu, international travelers are exposed to many serious diseases around the globe — but it’s better to be prepared than scared. Beyond popping the requisite dose of multivitamins and packing a tube of hand sanitizer before boarding a plane, travelers must receive the travel immunizations that are required or recommended for entering certain countries.

Although we’re fans of complete cultural immersion, we draw the line at sharing the native infectious diseases of our gracious host countries (and bringing them back home with us!). To protect yourself and others from international maladies, make sure you’re up to date on the immunizations you will need before your next adventure.

Travel Immunization Overview

It’s important to note — take care of immunizations as soon as possible! Many vaccinations require several days or weeks to take effect; you will want to anticipate any “holding period” well before you are to travel. The CDC recommends that travelers visit their doctor four to six weeks before an international trip.

Epidemics and illness abroad are constantly changing. The best online resource for overseas health is the Centers for Disease Control’s Travel Information website. We will provide you with an overview of immunizations, but be sure to check the CDC website for the latest up-to-date information on international health. Here are a few important links from the CDC site:

The Yellow Book is the definitive resource for this frequently changing information on required travel immunizations. This book is published every two years by the CDC; for more up-to-date information and breaking news on travelers’ illnesses, check out the CDC website regularly.

Health information by region can be found on the CDC’s Destinations page.

Here are some of the most common vaccination and booster requirements:

Tetanus/Diphtheria: Booster every 10 years.
Measles/Mumps/Rubella: If born after 1957, one dose of each; if given after 1967, the vaccination is good for life.
Polio: If immunized, get a booster before traveling abroad.
Yellow Fever: Immunization valid for 10 years.

If you cannot receive a required vaccination for health reasons, you should carry an official note from your doctor verifying the condition.

If you need to get a vaccination while traveling, note that some immunization clinics in developing countries may be unsanitary. In some cases, clinics may use the same needle repeatedly. If conditions appear suspect, check with your embassy for recommendations on acceptable clinics.

The Yellow Card

All immunizations must be recorded and presented on an official International Certificate of Vaccination, also known as the “yellow health card.” Your doctor or health care provider will fill out the card and you must get an official stamp, obtainable from your county health department (some doctors can also provide the stamp at the time of vaccination). In most cases you will only need to present a Yellow Card if traveling to an area where a Yellow Fever immunization is required.

Which Travel Shots Do You Need?

Yellow fever is the only immunization that the International Health Regulations of the World Health Organization require for travelers. Yellow fever is typically transmitted through mosquito bites in warmer climates; if you’re taking a trip to sub-Saharan Africa or certain countries in South America, you will have to get a yellow fever vaccination.

Other vaccinations are recommended — you can technically leave the country without having had any of these vaccinations (although it might not be the best idea!). Here’s a sample of some of the vaccinations that may be recommended if you head overseas:

Hepatitis B vaccinations are recommended for travel to certain countries in Europe (such as Spain, Portugal and Eastern Europe), Asia, Africa and South America. The CDC also recommends this vaccination for travel to northern destinations such as Alaska, Greenland and Russia.

Rabies vaccinations are recommended for travelers who will be exploring caves or spending a lot of time outdoors or in rural areas.

Hepatitis A vaccinations are recommended for people visiting developing countries in regions such as Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, the South Pacific, and South and Central America.

Typhoid is a particular risk for travelers to South Asia, as well as those visiting other nations in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

Although no vaccine exists for malaria, travelers to Central or South America, Africa, parts of Asia, or the South Pacific should look into taking the appropriate preventative drug regimen, Chemoprophylaxis. This anti-malaria treatment is not 100 percent effective and travelers should go over their itineraries with their doctors before starting Chemoprophylaxis, which can have unpleasant side effects.

Many immunizations are unsafe for children and pregnant women, although most are safe for breast-feeding mothers. People with possible contraindications for vaccinations, as well as persons with HIV and AIDS, may face certain side effects from some immunizations. Speak to your doctor before being vaccinated.

Where Can You Get Vaccinated?

Your doctor may not have access to all of the vaccines you need for overseas travel. For example, you can only get a yellow fever vaccination at an authorized yellow fever vaccination center. (You can find a directory of yellow fever vaccination centers on the CDC website.) Call your doctor’s office before your appointment to make sure that you will be able to get all of the vaccinations that you will need for your trip. If you can’t get the vaccinations you need from your doctor, find a traveler’s health clinic near you.

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