By Dr Liji Thomas, MD
Traveling is fun, but being exposed to communicable diseases is not so good. In addition to your personal risk of falling sick and missing out on enjoyable travel, you may bring back the infection to unvaccinated people in your own country and in your own family.
Ways to ensure safe travel include:
- Finding safe sources of food and water to avoid food poisoning
- Avoiding exposure to animals and bites
- Getting the right vaccinations: Visit your healthcare provider at least 4-6 weeks before your planned departure, to allow for sufficient time for the vaccines to be administered
Vaccines for all Travelers
Vaccines that are expected to be taken by all travelers include:
The MMR vaccine
The MMR vaccine protects travelers against catching mumps, measles, and rubella infections. If all travelers were vaccinated appropriately, this would prevent a huge proportion of infections from being brought back into the host country to affect other unvaccinated people.
Proper precautions include:
- Vaccinating all babies above 6 months against measles and MMR, if possible, before they leave
- Two doses of MMR should have been taken by babies 12 months or older
- Adults and adolescents should be tested for antibodies to measles; if not protected, they should take 2 doses of the vaccine at least 4 weeks apart
Other Childhood Vaccines
These are routine vaccinations that all children are expected to have taken in childhood:
- The DTP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccine
- The varicella vaccine against chickenpox
- The polio vaccine
- The yearly influenza vaccine
Other Vaccines Useful for Travelers to Africa
African tourists and travelers are also advised to have:
Hepatitis A to protect against jaundice transmitted through contaminated food or water, and taken as 2 doses 6 months apart
Typhoid vaccine: this is to protect against the transmission of typhoid germs through food or water, either as oral vaccine or in the injectable form. Its efficacy ranges from only 50-80%, so that you should take care not to expose yourself to unhealthy or contaminated food.
Hepatitis B vaccine should be taken in the following cases:
- You will be staying in Africa for a long period
- You will be participating in high-risk activities. This is mandatory if you may have sexual or blood-borne contact with any unknown person, including body tattoos and medical procedures. Healthcare workers who will be exposed to blood or serum or body fluids should also be immunized.
- Older people
- People who have chronic illnesses
Three doses are required, at 0, 1, and 6 months from the date of the first vaccination. An accelerated schedule is also possible in some cases. It is more than 90% effective. Most children in developed countries receive this vaccine in infancy.
Rabies if you are:
- An adventure traveler (hikers, trekkers, cavers, explorers, campers, or bikers)
- Working among animals (vets, animal researchers, forestry or wildlife workers)
- Moving to an African country
- a child, as children tend to be bitten on the head and neck more often
Three doses are required for pre-exposure prophylaxis, at 0, 7 and 21 (or 28) days from the first dose.
This vaccine is required for your safety in many African countries. Many African governments demand proof of this vaccination if you come from a country with exposure to yellow fever, in addition. Vaccination should be taken at least 10 days before the date of travel.
Meningitis caused by the meningococcus bacterium is endemic in sub-Saharan Africa, in countries such as Ethiopia which are part of the so-called ‘meningitis belt’, especially before the rains (December to June). The disease is deadly and highly contagious through close contact. It is thus recommended that you protect yourself with this vaccine, either the primary dose or a booster if your first dose was more than 5 years before. Infants require an appropriate dosage of quadrivalent meningococcal vaccine if they are to be taken to such regions, to protect them against all possible strains. A delay of up to 10 days occurs before the vaccination takes effect.
Cholera vaccine may be recommended for people who are likely to work in humanitarian aid centers or those who may be traveling or staying in remote areas. It is given as two doses one to six weeks apart, but children require a third dose after the same interval. Traveling to the affected area should be planned at least a week after the last dose. Revaccination or at least a booster may be required, if a vaccinated individual plans to visit an affected or high-risk area.
Reviewed by Susha Cheriyedath, MSc
Last Updated: Jul 25, 2016