A Wanderer’s Guide to Vaccines for International Travel
Vaccines, and shots, and needles…oh my!
So far, one of the biggest pain points (pun intended!) in my travel planning has been researching, obtaining, and paying for vaccines for international travel. It’s a topic I had never looked into before this year, and I was surprised at the amount of information I had to sift through to find the answers I was looking for. Here’s a guide with everything I’ve learned (so far!) for all of you wanderlusters out there who are looking into traveling long-term.
The Best Way to Research Vaccines for International Travel:
1. Determine where you’d like to travel and draw up at least a tentative itinerary.
You should have a general idea of the order you’d like to visit these countries in, and the length of time you’ll stay in each place. You should also think about the regions you’d like to visit, and activities you’d like to engage in. Will you be trekking through the jungle, or sticking to the major cities? Do you plan to spend time with locals and/or volunteering in small villages? Will you be visiting rural farmlands or rice fields?
While you don’t need to have an itinerary for every last detail of your trip (that takes the fun out of traveling!) you should have a general idea of your wish list, because this will determine what you may be exposed to, and hence, the vaccinations you’ll need.
2. Schedule a consultation with a travel health clinic.
You may not even know these exist (I didn’t, until I started researching!), but all over the U.S. there are clinics dedicated to providing information, vaccines, and medications for travelers.
Once you have a general itinerary, set up a consultation at one of these clinics. I paid $54 for a consultation at Passport Health USA, but I’m told that some clinics and university medical facilities provide free consultations. Check out what’s available in your area.
Bring a written copy of your itinerary, as well as previous vaccination records (dating all the way back to the vaccines you got as a baby).
3. Attend your consultation and listen up!
I can’t say enough good things about my experience with Passport Health. I met with a registered nurse who sat me down for over an hour and looked through my entire itinerary. She asked questions about where I was going, the activities I would do, and the order I would do them in. Then she printed out and bound a book completely tailored to my trip. It included health alerts and vaccination recommendations for all of my destinations, and descriptions of any diseases or viruses prevalent in each place. She walked through all of the information in the book with me, and made her recommendations for vaccines I should get, and those I shouldn’t have to worry about. I learned SO MUCH in this session – it was invaluable!
Then, she gave me a price list, and the option to get any or all of the vaccinations I needed right there on the spot.
4. Decide which vaccines are right for you.
There are a ton of factors to consider when deciding which vaccines you actually need. Some are required to enter a country, so you won’t have a choice in those unless you’d like to change your itinerary. Others are elective for the purpose of protecting yourself. Of course, the nurse or consultant can help you with assessing your risk factor based on destinations and activities, but ultimately there are other factors to consider. The biggest one here is personal finances.
I’ll be honest, I was FLOORED at the cost of these vaccines (see below). I shopped around and it looks like the prices don’t vary much across the U.S., and you’ll pay about the same if you get them at a clinic or through your doctor. You’ll need to look at the list of those recommended to you, and then make some decisions based on your personal budget.
From my research, it looks likes vaccine costs in the U.S. are way more expensive than in other countries. Because of this, I’ve seen chatter online that many travelers opt to get vaccines in their destination countries. For example, many get the rabies vaccine in Thailand because it’s about a tenth of the price, from what I’ve read. Personally, that’s not a choice I’m super comfortable with, but not everyone is as overly-cautious and slightly paranoid as I am. This is another option to consider based on where you stand on this issue.
What Passport Health Recommended to Me
To give you an idea of what you may be in for, I’ve provided my general itinerary and a list of the vaccines recommended to me below. Of course, this is tailored to my itinerary, based on my planned activities and past vaccinations, so this should not replace a consultation based on your own itinerary.
Europe (20+ countries)
Yellow Fever Price: $110
This is the only vaccine that is 100% required based on my itinerary. In order to enter Australia after visiting Peru and Brazil, I must show proof of vaccination.
Influenza (Standard flu shot) Price: $30
This was recommended as a general precaution.
This was recommended as a general precaution.
Hepatitis A Price: $95 per shot, two shot series
This was recommended because I’m traveling to Costa Rica, Peru, Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand, China and Japan. However, this vaccine is becoming more prevalent in general, and is now required for many school children in the U.S. as well.
Hepatitis B Price: $85 per shot, three shot series
Luckily, I had this one as a kid, so I don’t have to get it again. It’s highly recommended for most of my itinerary destinations.
Typhoid Fever Price: $115
This vaccine is recommended for all of my destinations except for Australia, Europe and New Zealand, and is highly recommended for “adventurous and long-term travelers.” It’s available as a shot, or a series of pills. I chose the pills, which you have to take every other day for eight days. I haven’t taken the series yet, but plan to soon.
Japanese Encephalitis Price: $315 per shot, two shot series
Holy crap, this one is expensive. The nurse said it’s recommended for Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and China. However, since I won’t really be in rural areas (i.e. rice fields and farmlands), and since I’ll only be in Asia for about a little over a month, I’m at low risk. At $630, I don’t feel comfortable with the price. Yeesh. Passing on this one.
Rabies Price:$305 per shot, three shot series
Holy, HOLY crap. $915 for this series. My initial reaction was a strong NO, however there are a lot of factors to consider:
I’m traveling to multiple high-risk areas.
The rabies mortality rate is 100% if not treated.
Treatment must occur within 10-24 hours after being infected (read: bitten) if you don’t want to die, and depending what country you’re in and how far you are from a major city, you may not be able to get treatment in time. Since I’m planning on trekking in some destinations, there’s a chance I wouldn’t be able to get treated in time if infected.
I want to hang out with monkeys in Peru. I love monkeys.
If you have to get treated post-exposure, it’s extremely painful and you have to be injected directly into the wound with a blood-based immune-globulin. Since it is blood based, it can be a high-risk shot, particularly if you’re in a country where you question the sanitation/quality of the medical care.
If you DO get exposed, you STILL have to get additional shots after the incident (although you get to skip the blood-based immune-globulin). All the (very expensive) vaccine does if you become exposed is buy you additional time to get treatment, and let you skip a potentially risky treatment step…
I’m still deciding about this one. Would you get it if you were me?
A Few Final Tips for Researching Vaccines:
Start early! For some vaccines, you need to get the final shot 30-60 days after the first one, before you’re completely protected. So, if you save your shots for the last minute, you may not be able to get them all in time.
Health insurance *may* cover portions of certain vaccines, but it completely depends on the insurance company and your coverage/benefits summary. It also seems to be getting more and more rare. When budgeting for vaccines, call your health insurance and find out exactly what they will cover.
You may have reactions to certain vaccines, so it would be best to schedule your consultation for a day when you don’t have anything to do later. I had a 48-hour-long flu-like reaction to the Yellow Fever vaccine (including a little rash on my arm, dizziness, headaches and exhaustion). Be sure to ask about possible side effects before receiving the vaccine. My nurse was amazing and made sure I was prepared for it!
Beyond the vaccine prices, budget some additional money for your consultation for antibiotics, bug sprays and anti-Malarials. The travel clinic has these available (it’s especially good to tap into this if your regular doctor is weary of prescribing antibiotics for travel), and they could help to make your trip much more comfortable. I left with:
Cipro for traveler’s diarrhea and UTI’s
Z-Pak for traveler’s diarrhea and sinus/respiratory infections
Bug spray and bug block for my clothing (since most diseases in the areas on my itinerary are transferred through bug bites)
Diamox for preventing altitude sickness
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, and am not qualified to give medical advice. This post is intended to share the information I’ve researched in my own preparation for travel abroad, but should not replace a consultation with a travel clinic nurse or your family doctor to discuss options for you based on your itinerary, health and medical history.
Have you received any vaccines for traveling abroad? What was your experience? Let me know in the comments below!