Travel Immunisations — Why, What and When! Travel tips from Dr Ruth Handford
Why are Immunisations Important?
Prevention is better than cure!
Immunisations (also known as vaccinations) stimulate the body to generate an immune response to a disease without becoming unwell.
Different diseases are common in different parts of the world — this can be due to differences in climate, a lack of local immunisation programmes, and factors such a poor hygiene and sanitation.
One example is malaria — which occurs in certain parts of the world much more commonly than others. The mosquitoes that transmit the disease cannot survive in some regions, so it simply isn't a problem. However, in other regions it is very common, and can be life threatening.
Which Immunisations do I need?
The immunisation schedule in the UK protects us against many serious illnesses as part of the childhood immunisation programme.
If you are not sure which immunisations you may have had as a child, or for previous travel, check with your GP surgery who will have a record of this information. If you need any booster immunisations to complete your UK immunisation schedule, your GP practice should be able to do this for you.
Additional immunisations are needed for certain destinations.
Make sure you know your itinerary if you have multiple stops during your trip, and also what kind of accommodation you will be staying in — there are different risks in cities versus rural locations, and trekking or camping can affect what immunisations are recommended.
If you are going to be involved with medical or aid work, in close contact with animals, or travelling at certain times of year, additional immunisations may be needed.
Some countries require proof of vaccination against certain infections in the form of an "International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis" or ICVP.
The best thing to do is to check the website www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk.
There isn't a vaccine available to protect against malaria. Instead, your GP will check whether you need to take antibiotics by mouth in order to prevent the infection developing. This will depend on where you are travelling to, what time of year it is, and the types of malaria present at your destination.
The malaria parasite is transferred by mosquito bites. It is sensible to take precautions against being bitten when you are in countries where malaria is known to be present. Wearing long sleeves and long trousers, using insect repellent, and using a mosquito net at night can be useful.
When should I have my immunisations?
Give yourself as much time as possible — as soon as you know your itinerary, work out what you are going to need. A travel clinic will do this for you, but there may be a charge. Some GP surgeries offer this service too, so it is worth checking.
Begin your immunisations about 6-8 weeks before you travel. This gives the body time to generate the immune response you need for protection.
Some immunisations need more than one dose to give immunity, and they often need to be given a few weeks apart.
Will the immunisations make me unwell?
No, but if the immunisation is given as an injection, then there may be some soreness and aching for a few days around the area in which it was given.
Occasionally people feel like they are developing a cold a few days after their immunisations. This is normal and should be short lived.
Certainly any side effects you may experience will be mild and will resolve — certainly preferable to developing the life threatening diseases your immunisations will prevent.
Will the immunisations interfere with my medication or medical condition?
Let your GP or travel clinic know about any allergies before you have your immunisations. Some antibiotics given to prevent malaria could cause allergic reactions if you are known to be sensitive to the medication. Don't worry, alternatives will be available if you do have allergies.
Immunisations should not interfere with any regular medication that you are taking, including contraception. However, if you are on high doses of steroids, or have recently had chemotherapy, this could affect which immunisations you can have and how well they might work.
Other medicines such as methotrexate, azathioprine, sulphasalazine, and ciclosporin may also reduce your response to a vaccine. Check with your GP in case you need extra doses or additional vaccines.
Some medical conditions may mean that immunisations do not work as well, such as problems with the immune system. Check with your GP if you are worried you may be affected.
About Dr Ruth Handford
Dr Ruth Handford is a GP with over 10 years' experience of working in both hospital and primary care. She is particularly interested in caring for the elderly in the community, child health, and family planning. Ruth lives and works in a rural community, and is kept very busy by her job and young family.
Important Information: These travel tips are intended to provide general information and do not replace a visit to your doctor. If you are planning a holiday you should consult your doctor to ensure that you are fit to travel and discuss any specific health requirements you may have.
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