To vaccinate or not to vaccinate?


Small hat, compass and vaccines lying on a map of Asia

Over the years, the topic of vaccinations has been a hotbed for discussion within the travel health industry and the general community; with the age-old debate of ‘should I get vaccinated before travelling’ coming up time and time again.

Many argue that vaccinations are imperative if visiting an area that is affected by disease, while others argue that travel vaccinations pose unnecessary health risks.

We know that vaccines are highly effective in preventing disease, so why people are averse to vaccination remains a mystery. Since the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1968, it is estimated that 20 million cases and 4,500 deaths have been averted in the UK alone.

To prevent diseases and protect people, each country needs to have what we call herd immunity where around 95% of the population need vaccination to protect the community. Many countries around the world fall short of this which is why outbreaks and disease patterns change.

What is a travel vaccination?

A travel vaccination, also referred to as a travel jab or immunisation, are vaccines administered to people before they visit certain parts of the world. Travel vaccinations protect the person from contracting specific diseases, during their time in an affected country or area. Vaccines stimulate your immune system so that it can recognise the disease and protect you from future infection (i.e. you become immune to the infection).

Reasons to have a travel vaccination:

Diseases are still prevalent in certain countries

Despite the advances in modern medicine, many dangerous diseases are still common in some areas of the world but can be prevented by vaccines. Due to the presence of these diseases, it’s important to ensure that people travelling to affected areas keep themselves safe and protected from infection. One of the best and easiest ways to do this is by having a vaccination.

The number of cases of imported measles back to the UK for example are increasing as outbreaks occur and disease are prevalent. Vaccination programmes vary from country to country which means many people remain unvaccinated and unprotected.  The number of imported malaria cases for 2017 for example was 10.8% higher than reported in 2016 with associated deaths. These diseases can all be prevented.

Your travel insurance may not be valid without one

If you choose to travel abroad without vaccinations and become ill due to a vaccine-preventable disease, your travel insurance may not cover you for any expenses incurred. The Post Office specifically state in their travel insurance policies, that they will not insure you for ‘Expenses incurred as a result of a tropical disease when you have not had the recommended inoculations and/or taken the recommended medication.’

The majority of travel vaccines are not live

The vast majority of travel vaccinations are inactivated vaccines. An inactivated vaccine (or killed vaccine) consists of virus particles or bacteria that have been grown in culture and then killed. By killing the bacteria, they are unable to reproduce; meaning they are unable to spread within the body and cause infection.

Myths and risks of travel vaccinations:

Vaccinations can give you the disease they’re designed to prevent

A common concern about travel vaccinations is that they can lead to you contracting the disease that they seek to protect against. While there is logic behind this, it is often misinterpreted or misunderstood. Although live vaccines do provide the body with a small dose of the disease that spreads within the body (sometimes causing mild symptoms), even live travel vaccinations are safe and reported cases of infection through vaccination are minuscule. Live vaccines offer greater life-long protection

Vaccinations can cause allergic reactions

It’s normal to have local redness or swelling around the vaccination site, but this should go away after a few hours. On very rare occasions, people may have an allergic reaction, which is usually a rash or itching that affects part or all of the body. Our expert travel nurses are trained in how to deal with this, and these reactions are completely reversible if treated promptly. Allergic reactions can occur from everything we are exposed to, not just vaccines. Allergic reactions from vaccination are extremely rare.


Should I get vaccinations before travelling?

To protect yourself against the diseases in a country or destination, you should see a travel health specialist for a detailed risk assessment. Disease patterns change all the time and the specialist nurse will have access to detailed outbreaks and recommendations of that country or area.

The specialist will risk assess high-risk groups such as pregnancy, children those without spleen or immunosuppressed for example and tailor the advice and recommendations accordingly.

Each individual’s situation is different, and you may be offered different health prevention advice in accordance with your condition.

At London Travel Clinic, we offer a comprehensive travel health service including advice and vaccinations. If you’re ever unsure as to whether you need vaccinations before travelling or going on holiday, then please consult with one of our experts who will be happy to advise you.

Article last reviewed on 20/02/2019 by:

Denise Chalkley RN, RM, RHV, BSc, AMFTM RCPS (Glas)
Clinical & Operations Director for Travel Medicine

Denise is an associate member of the Faculty of Travel Medicine, and a freelance lecturer at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow for the Faculty of Travel Medicine. She also lectures at the University of Hertfordshire teaching immunisations, tuberculosis, sexual health and travel medicine.

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