Have you had your jabs? Why you need to make sure your vaccinations are in order before heading overseas.
Whenever we travel, the health risks travel with us. Not all countries have the same levels of health care we’re used to at home, so vaccinations are a necessary precaution, particularly when visiting developing countries. This guide looks at common diseases and the vaccinations needed to protect ourselves from them as well as general advice on staying healthy overseas.
Travel insurance and vaccinations
Getting your vaccinations before you go is not only vital for your health, it can also be good for your wallet. Your travel insurance may not cover your medical treatment or hospitalisation if you don’t get the recommended vaccinations before going overseas.
You could find yourself with a medical bill for tens of thousands of dollars if you need to be medically evacuated for treatment. So check with your local GP about the vaccinations required for the countries you plan to visit and schedule your shots about 6-8 weeks before your departure date, as some vaccinations require longer than others to become effective.
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The importance of making sure you have the right vaccinations
Modern commercial air travel has opened the world up to us, allowing us to visit far-flung countries and exotic destinations. But access to developing countries has also meant exposure to diseases that have been largely eradicated at home.
Malaria, rabies, meningococcal meningitis, hepatitis A and B, typhoid and yellow fever are just some of the diseases still very much active in developing countries where access to good sanitation and health care can be limited.
This is why it’s important to get the right vaccinations before travelling to such destinations. Your local GP will be able to administer the vaccinations you need and will know which ones you need for your travels.
It’s also a good idea to visit the Australian Government’s Smartraveller website. It provides up to date information on health issues found at certain destinations and at particular times of the year.
Vaccines you should consider
It depends on where you're going. However, the main diseases you are likely to encounter when travelling in developing countries or tropical regions are as follows:
- Cholera. This is a potentially deadly bacterial infection causing severe diarrhoea, vomiting and dehydration. It’s commonly found in areas where hygiene and sanitation standards are poor. Cholera vaccine is an oral liquid taken in two doses between one and six weeks apart.
- Hepatitis A. This virus is found in most developing countries and causes liver disease. The vaccine consists of two injections administered at least two weeks prior to travelling.
- Hepatitis B. This virus causes liver disease and cancer. It’s commonly found in parts of Asia, Africa, the South Pacific, and Central and South America. The accelerated vaccine treatment consists of three injections administered over a month.
- Japanese encephalitis. This virus is transmitted by mosquitoes and causes swelling of the brain, convulsions and coma. It’s commonly found in South East Asia, East Asia and Papua New Guinea. The vaccine consists of three injections administered over four weeks.
- Meningococcal meningitis. This bacterial infection causes thinning of the lining surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It’s commonly found in Saudi Arabia and sub-Saharan Africa. The vaccine consists of a single injection prior to travelling.
- Rabies. This virus is normally transferred by animal bites and scratches, causing progressive inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. It’s commonly found in developing areas of Africa, Asia and South America. The vaccine consists of three injections administered over the course of one month.
- Typhoid. This bacterial infection causes severe fever, headache and diarrhoea. It’s commonly found in areas with poor sanitation and untreated drinking water. The vaccine consists of a single injection or an oral course of three capsules taken two days apart.
- Yellow fever. This virus is transmitted by mosquitoes and causes bleeding, jaundice, kidney and liver failure. It’s commonly found in tropical areas of Africa and South America. The vaccination consists of a single injection administered at least 10 days before travelling.
- Malaria. This infection is transmitted by mosquitoes, causing fevers, headache, vomiting and, if not treated, disruption of blood supply to vital organs. It’s commonly found in Africa, Asia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and South and Central America. There is no vaccine for malaria, so preventative measures are recommended to reduce the likelihood of mosquito bites.
As well as making sure you get the appropriate vaccinations, here are some other important things to take care of before you go:
- Have you registered your travel? Register with the Australian Government’s Smartraveller website so you can be contacted in an emergency and keep up to date with travel and health warnings.
- Have you got travel insurance? Take out suitable travel insurance to cover you for medical emergencies, trip cancellations and lost or stolen luggage.
- Do you have all of your documentation? Check your documents including passports (must be valid for at least 6 months), driver’s licence (whether it’s valid at your destination) and any visas you need for the countries you are visiting.
- Have you made copies of your travel documents? Take a copy of your documents with you along with the originals and leave a copy with friends or family at home.
- Do you have the right credit cards? Check your finances such as credit cards (whether they can be used at your destination), traveller’s cheques and local currency for when cards aren’t accepted.
- Do you have your travel accessories? Purchase suitable adaptor plugs and check that your electronics will work with them overseas.
- Are your bags in good condition? Clearly label all bags and never leave luggage unattended or with someone you don’t know.
- Have you done your research? Research the destinations you are travelling to so you are aware of local laws and customs.
- Are you at risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT)? Avoid deep vein thrombosis DVT on long-haul flights by purchasing compression socks, exercising and drinking plenty of fluids on the plane.
How to avoid getting sick overseas
Even with the appropriate vaccinations, there are no guarantees that you won’t catch something while travelling overseas, particularly in developing countries. So here are some tips for staying healthy and reducing your risk of infection when travelling:
- Avoid mosquito bites by wearing light, loose fitting clothing that covers your arms and legs, staying in fully screened accommodation, regularly applying insect repellent and avoiding perfume or cologne, which can attract mosquitoes.
- Avoid the risk of rabies by not feeding or petting dogs, monkeys, bats or any warm-blooded animals when travelling in foreign countries.
- Think about what you consume and avoid untreated local water and street food. High-risk foods include unpasteurised dairy products, ice, raw or reheated meat or seafood, salads and any food prepared in unhygienic conditions.
- Observe sanitary practices at all times and wash your hands regularly, particularly after going to the toilet.
- Use condoms to prevent sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, human papillomavirus, herpes, syphilis, hepatitis B and AIDS.
Taking medications overseas
To avoid losing your medicines or running into trouble at customs, there are several recommended steps to follow when taking medications abroad:
- Check the Smartraveller website for specific rules regarding drugs in the countries you plan to visit. For example, codeine in painkillers is considered a narcotic in Greece, Japan, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.
- Take as much medication as you can in case you aren’t able to get more at your destination.
- Carry your medications with you in your carry-on luggage and keep them in their original packaging.
- Ask your doctor for a letter listing your medications and confirming they are for your personal use only.
- Take any unused prescriptions with you. Even if you can’t fill them overseas, they will tell a doctor about your medication needs.
- Counterfeit drugs are a big problem in some developing countries. Buy your medications from a reputable chemist rather than from a street vendor.
Putting together a travel medical kit
When travelling to destinations with limited access to basic medical care, it’s a good idea to take along your own travel medical kit. This can help you deal with minor emergencies and health issues when a doctor may not be readily available. A good travel medical kit would normally contain items such as:
- Paracetamol and aspirin
- Diarrhoea medicine
- Oral rehydration salts
- Antiseptic lotion or ointment
- Adhesive bandages and other wound dressings
- Insect repellent
- Latex gloves
- Motion sickness medicine
- Water purification tablets
- Compression stockings
Depending on how remote your destination is, you might also want to consider having your doctor prescribe you antibiotics, which can be useful in cases of diarrhoea or severe respiratory infections.
The following is a list of useful contacts and resources for overseas health-related matters:
- Smartraveller: smartraveller.gov.au
- The Travel Doctor: traveldoctor.com.au
- Centres for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov
- Travel Health Advisory Group: welltogo.com.au
- World Health Organization: who.int/en
- The Australian Immunisation Handbook: health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/Handbook-home