What vaccinations do I need to have before traveling abroad?
Once you decide that your travel plans will take you beyond the United States borders, it’s wise to make an appointment with a travel health expert to discuss your general health and immunization needs. Whether or not you will need particular vaccines will depend on several factors, including:
- Your risk of exposure to diseases in the countries to be visited
- Your age, current health status, and vaccination history
- The presence of additional individual risk factors, such as being pregnant, having pre-existing cardiovascular disease, or having a condition that might weaken your immune system, such as cancer
- Reactions to previous vaccine doses and your allergy history (including medication allergies)
- The risk of infecting others
- Length of travel abroad
Some vaccinations are simply recommended while others are required if traveling to specific countries. The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that all travelers be up-to-date with the routine schedule of childhood vaccinations and booster shots. These routine vaccines include:
- Diphtheria/tetanus/pertussis (DTP)
- Hepatitis B (HBV)
- Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib)
- Measles/mumps/rubella (MMR)
- Poliomyelitis (IPV)
Examples of required or mandatory vaccines include yellow fever – if traveling to parts of South America or Africa – and meningococcal vaccine, which is required by Saudi Arabia for pilgrims visiting Mecca and/or Medina for the annual (Hajj) or at any time (Umrah). Other vaccines, for example, to protect against Hepatitis A, polio, or typhoid fever, may be recommended depending on your travel itinerary. Ask your travel health specialist about your specific needs.
What are travel health specialists?
Some hospitals or other health care facilities might offer a travel medicine clinic. A travel medicine clinic is an office staffed by doctors and nurses who have a special interest or special training in travel and tropical medicine. The types of services offered at travel clinics can vary widely, but can include:
- Pre-travel consultations and vaccinations
- Official vaccine certificate documentation or letter of exception (which is necessary for entry into certain countries)
- Any necessary prescriptions
- Post-travel medical consultations, evaluation and care, if necessary
- Onsite diagnostic laboratory services
Getting travel health specialist assistance – such as that found in a travel medicine clinic – often results in certain advantages compared with seeing a general medicine or primary healthcare specialist:
- Visiting a specialized clinic that focuses on international travel helps ensure you get all the immunizations and information you need.
- Gives you the latest information. Infectious diseases and international traveling recommendations can rapidly change.
- Makes sure you avoid immunization and medications you do not need.
- Data shows that seeing a travel health expert results in a much lower chance of becoming ill while traveling.
Many state and local health departments also offer travel immunization services. Check your white pages or online for office locations.
How soon before my departure should I receive my necessary vaccines?
It is best to consult a travel medicine clinic 4 to 6 weeks before your departure. Keep in mind that a vaccine’s protective effect takes some time to develop following the vaccination. Some vaccines, too, may require more than one dose, so more than one office visit may be needed. However, when urgent travel issues arise, it is still smart and useful to arrange a travel medicine specialist visit even up to the day before departure.
If needed, all commonly used vaccines can be given on the same day. However, certain vaccines that typically cause local reactions should (if possible) be given on separate office visits. Fortunately, a number of combined vaccines are now available that provide protection against more than one disease. Combination vaccines are just as safe and effective as individual single-disease vaccines and offer the convenience of fewer injections.
Do I need to present any vaccine-related official paperwork as I cross country borders?
All travelers, adults and children, are wise to take a written record of vaccines they have received. The International Certificate of Vaccination is required in the case of yellow fever vaccination, or a letter of exemption when appropriate. Other things to remember about this certificate:
- The International Certificate of Vaccination must be completed and printed in English or French (an additional language also may be used).
- Separate certificates should be issued to each member of the traveling party.
- The certificate is considered valid only if the vaccine used has been approved by the World Health Organization and if it was given at a designated center (approved by the health administration for your geographic area of the country). An authorized person must sign the certificate; a rubber stamp signature is not acceptable.
- The certificate is valid for 10 years, beginning 10 days after the date of vaccination. Most travel medicine clinics provide the needed documentation at the time of your visit.