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Your Travel Vaccine Checklist, Continent by Continent

By Brenda Conaway
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Do you dream about the white sands and aquamarine waters of the Caribbean? Have you ever wanted to go on an African safari? Don't let concerns about "Montezuma's revenge" or a more serious illness like typhoid fever stop you from pursuing your wanderlust.

While it's true that visiting new countries can expose you to illnesses rarely seen in the U.S., there are several ways to protect yourself from foreign invaders, starting with travel vaccines.

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What Are Travel Vaccinations?

Travel vaccines, also called travel immunizations, are shots travelers can get before visiting certain areas of the world that help protect them from serious illnesses. Vaccinations work by exposing the body to a germs or parts of germs of the disease it will protect against. You can't get the disease from the vaccine because the viruses or bacteria are dead or severely weakened.  The body responds to the vaccination by making antibodies that will protect you if you are exposed to the disease in the future.  

Travel vaccines are safe, effective ways to help protect travelers from bringing home more than they bargained for.

How Do I Know If I Need Vaccinations?

"In almost all circumstances, it's very rare for someone not to need vaccines," says Jeffrey Goad, PharmD, MPH. He explains that travel vaccines are broken down into three types.  

Routine vaccines are the standard child and adult immunizations recommended for the general U.S. population.

"Every time we see a patient, we check general routine vaccines," says Goad, who is the director of USC International Travel Health Services. According to Goad, many people are not up to date on their adult immunizations, such as the tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis vaccination, and this is a great time to catch them up.  

"Because vaccines for diseases that are routine here, for instance measles, which breaks out every now and then, can be extremely common in other countries, routine vaccines sometimes become very important when traveling abroad," says Goad.

Recommended vaccines are travel vaccinations that can protect you in areas where there is an intermediate or high risk for contracting certain illnesses.  They also help prevent the spread of diseases from one country to another.   

Required vaccines. The yellow fever vaccine may be required for travel to certain parts of Africa and South America. According to Goad, Saudi Arabia also has a meningococcal vaccine requirement during the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Which Travel Vaccines Will I Need?

Below is a list of vaccine-preventable travel-related diseases that are not covered by routine adult vaccinations:

  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Typhoid and paratyphoid fever
  • Meningococcal disease
  • Yellow Fever
  • Rabies
  • Japanese Encephalitis

Whether or not you may need one or more of these vaccines depends on any number of variables.  

"People assume it's one-size-fits-all -- OK, I'm going to Thailand, what do I need," says Phyllis Kozarsky, MD, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Emory University. But according to Kozarsky, who is an expert consultant for the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine with the CDC, that's not enough. A business executive staying in Bangkok at a 5–star hotel has a completely different risk profile from a college student who's going to backpack in rural Thailand, says Kozarsky. So the vaccinations recommended for these two people would be different, even though they are going to the same country.  

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