Alina Valachi hasn’t forgotten her last trip to Pakistan. "My husband contracted malaria two weeks into the trip," she says. This was despite taking precautions such as spraying their room with pesticides, wearing long-sleeved clothing and applying mosquito repellent. "He was born and raised in Pakistan, and had never contracted malaria – he assumed that he had immunity to the disease," she says.
Since that time, Valachi, who lives in Toronto, says she’s been proactive about researching vaccinations before each vacation, visiting local travel clinics to ensure she and her family have the recommended shots: "I start researching vaccinations four months before the trip."
"Vaccinations are some of the safest ways of preventing infectious diseases," says Dr. Mark Wise, a family doctor who practices travel and tropical medicine in Toronto. He says that at the very least, if you are travelling to foreign destinations you should be up-to-date on routine vaccinations such as tetanus, pertussis, polio and diphtheria. You might also want to get your annual flu shot or pneumonia shot for added protection.
Wise also says the combination hepatitis A and B vaccine is a good bet, as both illnesses are found everywhere, particularly in holiday destinations where hygiene and medical care can be less than stellar.
But Wise cautions that your bare-bones vaccinations are just the beginning. "Some people have a sense of invincibility," he says, particularly those returning to their home countries.
For that reason, if you’re planning to travel to an area where potentially lethal illnesses such as dengue fever or malaria are common, he strongly advocates visiting a travel clinic or checking out travel websites, the World Health Organization’s International travel and health website or the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Travel Health website. And be prepared to pay; because travel vaccinations aren’t covered under provincial health plans, you’ll likely be out-of-pocket for them. While travel insurance won't cover the cost of vaccinations, it will protect you from unexpected medical costs while you're away, and can also help you find emergency assistance when you're far from home or don't speak the local language.
Depending on what diseases are common where you’re going, you might need protection against:
- Hepatitis A and B
- Dengue fever
- Typhoid fever
- Yellow fever
- Japanese encephalitis
Wise recommends starting the vaccination process months before your departure. Certain vaccines, such as for hepatitis A and B, require three shots ideally administered over six months. But he says that for last-minute travellers, it’s possible to compress the schedule for some vaccinations into three weeks, or even one week. "Even for people who leave a lot to the last minute, there is a lot that can be done," he says.
Bob and Jane Sanders, a Richmond, B.C. couple, used to be worried about side effects from the many travel shots they were advised to get. But before a trip to China, they agreed to get a yellow fever shot. "We had to sign a form because we were over 60," says Jane. "But there were no reactions."
"Serious side effects are exceedingly rare," says Wise. He says that after a vaccination, all you might be left with is some soreness at the injection site.
And some peace of mind.
How to avoid an unwelcome vacation souvenir:
- At minimum, get tetanus and hepatitis A and B shots before a trip.
- Check with your family doctor before vaccinations if you’re over 60, have an underlying illness, are immuno-compromised or are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Pack your common sense. Vaccinations don’t replace wearing insect-proof clothing and making sure your water is safe.