Passport got stolen? It can be replaced. Left your wallet in the hotel? You'll get a new one.
Travel insurance may be able to replace your possessions, but it can only cover your medical bills. That's why the only thing that really matters when you go abroad on your gap year is your health (provided you don't get in trouble with local police...).
By entering certain countries you run the risk of catching deadly diseases that you'd never encounter at home. Protection seems like a sensible idea, but here's the thing: whilst some vaccinations are compulsory, others aren’t. Which makes it tough to know which ones you really must get before going away and which simply aren’t worth the trouble.
Put your worries to one side: I've got you covered.
Stick to these simple guidelines before you hop on any airplane, and you'll strike the perfect balance between adequate safety precautions and unnecessary medical injections.
The Golden Rule: Listen To Your Doctor
First things first: this is a blog post on the internet. It's a good sign that you care enough about vaccination to research it, but this is only a guide - the definitive advice must come from your doctor.
Get an appointment at your local doctor's surgery around eight weeks before your trip. Many have a dedicated programme for travel health - you'll see a nurse, answer some basic questions about where you're going and what you plan on doing whilst there, and receive the necessary jabs then and there.
In most cases you'll be in and out in less than 10 minutes, with a significantly decreased chance of impending doom. In other words: it's easy and worth it, so get on with it!
Can't get an appointment with the GP?
MASTA (Medical Advisory Services for Travellers Abroad) can assist you in finding your nearest private travel health clinic. There's no real difference between doing this or going to the doctor, although if you're heading somewhere particularly unusual they may be able to offer destination-specific precautions that your doctor won't. This decision is really up to you.
Which Vaccinations Do You Need?
Vaccinations are essentially split into three different categories.
Routine vaccinations are those which everyone needs whether travelling or not. If you're in the UK, you'll probably have been covered for things like BCG (ouch - remember that one?), hepatitis A and polio throughout childhood as they're offered for free by the NHS.
If you're not already going to your normal doctor, give them a ring to check that you're up-to-date with these. Travelling to a malaria zone and instead contracting Darwin Awards material - don't be that guy.
Required vaccinations are the ones which tend to be major health concerns wherever you're visiting and require proof of immunisation for entry into the country.
Much of South America and Africa has disease control restrictions in place for yellow fever, and you'll need to show an international certificate of vaccination or prophylaxis (ICVP) at the border. Don't fret - required vaccinations are rare and will be the first thing any doctor will make sure you're covered for.
If you're up-to-date with your routine vaccinations and have been immunised against any required vaccinations, technically you have everything you need. But does that necessarily mean you'll be safe? No, it doesn't. Which leads us on to the third and final category...
Which Optional Vaccinations Should You Get?
Optional, or recommended vaccinations are the ones most backpackers need to think about. They are not offered routinely on the NHS, can cost money, and the risk of opting-out depends on the following 7 questions:
- 1. The country you’ll be visiting and sometimes which region of that country.
- 2. The time of year that your visit will take place.
- 3. Where you’ll be staying; rural or urban.
- 4. What you’ll be doing while there; working, sightseeing, etc.
- 5. How long you're staying.
- 6. How old you are.
- 7. What your current state of health is like.
An important point that jumps out here is: disease zones and internationally-recognised borders are not the same thing.
Going to India? In the northeast and centre of the country you'll need malaria protection, but in the north and south you won't. This is precisely why your itinerary is key and planning in advance is so important.
For specific recommendations on what vaccinations are recommended based on country or region, take a look at the following 3 websites:
- 1. National Travel Health Network Centre (NaTHNaC)
- 2. Centre of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- 3. The NHS - Fit For Travel
You can also take a look at the video below, which shows a step-by-step guide to one traveller's vaccination experience.
How Expensive Are Travel Vaccines?
Whilst the likes of Dipheria/Tetanus/Polio, Hepatitis A and Typhoid are typically offered for free by the NHS, many recommended vaccinations will cost a bit. If you've left enough time and know which paid jabs you're going for, by all means shop around.
Different travel clinics offer different prices, so you needn't settle for the first quote you are given. In some cases the cheapest travel clinic and the going rate at the doctor’s surgery can differ by more than 50%.
Here are five of the most common optional immunisations, a rough price range and an indication of how long protection lasts for:
- 1. Hepatitis B: £30 - £95, Up to ten years
- 2. Japanese B Encephalitis: £50 - £100, up to one year
- 3. Rabies: £120 - £150, up to two years
- 4. Tick Borne Encephalitis: £70 - £110, up to three years
- 5. Yellow Fever: £45 - £80, up to ten years
Too many options?
I'm Interested, Tell Me More!
The Importance of Malaria Prevention
Hardened travellers among you will have noticed I've hardly mentioned malaria yet. Why not? Because the fatal disease spread by mosquitoes is so important and awareness so vital, it demands an explanation entirely of its own.
Malaria is present in more than 100 countries worldwide, with around 40% of humanity at risk at any one time - see for yourself on the CDC's Malaria Map Application. Big chunks of Africa, the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, Australia and South America are all high-risk zones.
Common early symptoms can be similar to flu – the chills, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, vomiting and diarrhoea. And that's before it starts to get serious. Symptoms normally occur a fortnight after being bitten by an infected mosquito, with it sometimes being as late as a year.
When you consider that malaria has been responsible for 50% of all human deaths since the Stone Age (source), it should start to sink in that this is something worth taking very seriously.
The good news is that with a few basic precautions malaria prevention is easily manageable. Whilst your GP or travel clinic can advise on a course of antimalarial tablets which help prevent contraction, the best defence is to avoid getting bitten as much as possible. Here are our Top 5:
- 1. Use mosquito repellents liberally, and use a repellent that contains DEET.
- 2. Use bed nets where supplied or available.
- 3. Wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers in the evenings.
- 4. Zip up your tent at night.
- 5. Mosquito coils are also effective.
When considering brands of antimalarial tablets, Doxycycline and Malarone are the two I’d recommend most highly - with Doxycycline being the least expensive option at approximately 12p a tablet. Branded Malarone is considerably pricier, but you can get generic varieties which cost considerably less. Of course, these should be packed in your well-stocked medical kit, which I looked at in detail in my recent How to Pack the Perfect Gap Year Backpack article. Oh, and avoid Larium at all costs. If you've heard any horror stories about malaria table side effect, it's highly likely Larium was the culprit - it can lead to mood swings, depression, nightmares and shivers. Nobody wants that when they’re on the road, do they?
What To Do If You Arrive Home Feeling IllFirstly, try not to worry: in the unlikely even that you have caught something threatening, your chances of a quick recovery are hugely increased by being back home and close to first-rate medical facilities. That is, provided you don't hang around. If you've been to a malaria zone in the last year and become ill with a fever or flu-like illness whilst traveling, seek medical attention immediately. If it's not as bad as that, still consult your GP or the NHS Hospital for Tropical Diseases, who have a walk-in clinic.
Are Travel Vaccinations Really Necessary?I hope it's clear by now that the answer is a resounding 'YES!' - you'd be mad to leave home without. Book an appointment with your GP today - the sooner the better.
on 24 / 03 / 2016