Travel vaccinations are an essential part of the gap year and travel planning process, yet every single day thousands of travellers ignore the advice of qualified professionals and don’t get them. But why? Are travel vaccinations really that important?
The short answer to that is for the majority of people yes they are. And here’s why.
Many backpackers and and gap year travellers head off to far flung, exotic destinations every single day as part of their travel adventure, after all that is half of the point, right? To explore somewhere new, to get out of our comfort zones and experience all the wonders and adventure the world has to offer us? Of course it is! Travelling to new, exotic locales is part of the lure of a gap year. There’s nothing wrong with that.
The problem is, as amazing and fun and exciting as it is, travelling to these exotic destinations exposes us to ‘exotic’ diseases.
But don’t worry too much.
There’s no need to panic about this simple fact, it doesn’t mean that you are going to encounter some never before heard of alien virus or some tropical flesh eating zombie lurgy, it just means that you will encounter common diseases in the parts of the world you are travelling to that you are extremely unlikely – if ever – going to encounter at home.
Now some of these diseases are rarer than others and some are more risky or deadly than others of course, but the simple fact is they are ‘exotic’ only in as far as they are new to you and your immune system.
This means that because you haven’t been exposed to these diseases naturally before, you will have little or no natural immunity to them, and that is why vaccines are important.
Travel vaccines are simply a way to reduce your level of risk, or chances of severe or even fatal symptoms if you do come into contact with a disease your body won’t be used to fighting. That’s it.
Travel safety is all about being prepared, not scared, and travel vaccines are a huge part of that.
The problem is because these diseases are not common in many Western countries they will not be offered routinely back home as part of the normal vaccination schedule, most of the time because it simply isn’t necessary, practical or cost effective.
That means that although you may be up to date on all your routine vaccinations, there are a whole range of vaccinations specifically for travel that aren’t on that routine list, and you may need extra ones dependent on where you are going.
The difference between ‘routine’ and ‘travel’ vaccinations.
The best way to look at the range of travel vaccines is as a reinforcement to your routine vaccination package. They are there to provide you with protection from the diseases you are not yet protected from. It really is that simple.
Travel vaccinations are offered separately from routine vaccinations precisely because they are not routine. The exact vaccinations you will need depend on where you are going, how long for, your past medical history and a variety of other risk factors, and it is important to remember that although vaccinations are generally incredibly important they are not always suitable for all individuals all of the time.
It is a given that there will always be some people who are clinically unable to take some vaccines, they may have a history of severe contraindications or have other health issues were it is not recommended, and for those who are able the strength of the recommendation for each vaccine will be very different based on a variety of factors.
It is a good idea to do some research and get a basic understanding of what you need from reputable sources, the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) website or the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website are great resources. The NHS’ Fit For Travel is also an excellent site for travellers. This is no substitute for qualified, one to one advice however, and you will also have to make an appointment at a travel clinic to discuss your specific needs with a specialist nurse, or head to your GP or pharmacist who offer travel clinic services.This is because the general advice may be that vaccinations are important, but the advice still needs tailoring to you as an individual.
Travel vaccinations also come at a cost because they are not covered by routine vaccination programmes, and depending on how many you need, the costs can sometimes add up quickly.
Unfortunately it is often this extra cost that puts a lot of travellers off getting them, and ‘they are too expensive’ is probably the most common excuse I hear in my own consultations with potential travellers as to why they are hesitant, or decide not to get them altogether, but I urge each and every one of you to not let the cost influence your decision.
Consider the cost of vaccinations as part of the basic trip expenses alongside your plane ticket and your insurance. You cannot put a price on your health.
It is a simple fact that many of these diseases such as typhoid and hepatitis A for example can not only ruin your trip but can have serious long term health complications and in some cases even pose a risk to your life!
This is exactly why travel vaccinations are so important.
The vaccinations exist to protect you from this risk, why would you increase your risk or endanger yourself for a little bit of money?
Now I’m not trying to scaremonger either, it is absolutely true that in the majority of cases the chances of getting some diseases can be quite low. In many cases the vaccines may or may not be recommended at all dependent on a wide variety of factors. These factors help you form a risk/benefit analysis of getting the vaccine. All I’m saying is cost should be pretty low down on the list of priorities when it comes to deciding whether to get one or not.
This is why medical and health professionals have a rigorous system for risk assessment and a grading system for each and every country. The terminology differs slightly depending on which country you come from, but they are always based on which vaccinations are very strongly advised for the diseases with a very high risk factor, the vaccinations that are sometimes recommended for those diseases with a variable risk dependent on individual factors, and those vaccinations which travellers may also consider for those diseases with a low chance of being contracted.
What this means in very simple terms is that one traveller may be heading to a country with a moderate risk of a disease but may have individual circumstances that make the risk of contracting it, and therefore the strength of the vaccine recommendation, very low. The next traveller may be going to the exact same destination but may have a past medical history that puts them more at risk, they may be spending much longer in a destination or engaging in activities that put them at more risk, so the strength of the recommendation changes.
So to give just one basic example, someone heading to Singapore for a few days of shopping and then heading to Sydney for a month or two will be at very low risk of rabies, but the next traveller who wants to go through Singapore and then fly off to Indonesia for a few months volunteering with animals, doing a bit of bat spotting whilst caving and then staying in Bali for a few months and wanting to cuddle as many dogs as possible will be at much higher risk. Therefore the higher the risk, the stronger the recommendation for the rabies vaccine.
Of course as I said earlier the exact range of vaccinations you will need for your gap year and the strength of that reccomendation will differ from person to person dependent on where you are going, what you are doing and of course your own medical history. This is why it is essential to get a qualified opinion on your very specific travel plans and individual needs, because the risk does vary from traveller to traveller, but just because the risk is low and the recommendation relatively low. it doesn’t mean you should dismiss it out of hand either.
The problem is when someone hears ‘low risk’, they assume ‘safe’, and that is not always true. Many travellers assume they can run the risk, not get any vaccinations and be fine.
And that may be true, they may very well be fine. There are of course plenty of people who are not vaccinated and don’t contract any diseases when travelling, the majority in fact. The problem is that the chances of getting certain diseases may be low, but the consequences if you are one of the unlucky ones who do contract certain diseases can potentially be very severe.
This is why protecting yourself with travel vaccinations seems like a no brainer. You buy insurance to protect your fancy new camera and your gear, why not pay to protect your health?
Of course it goes without saying that no one can force you to get yourself vaccinated. It is entirely up to you. As a qualified nurse I always try and give as much impartial and accurate information as I can so that you can make that choice for yourself, it is not up to me what you do with that information and I would never try and force someones decision one way or the other. This goes against every ethical and moral guideline of medical practice and violates your most fundamental rights to informed consent, medical choice and bodily autonomy. However, I do urge you all to think very carefully before dismissing any qualified advice and recommendations on what vaccinations to get or not.
At the end of the day, they are considered an essential part of the travel planning process for a reason.
Vaccinations are in general there to reduce your potential risk of illness and disease when travelling, and with careful risk benefit analysis with a qualified medical professional you can see which ones are right for you and enjoy your travels safe in the knowledge you have taken an important step in doing just that.
Did you enjoy this article or find it useful? Remember you can always make an appointment at my online travel clinic if you need any further advice on a one to one basis. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.