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Travel vaccinations

Key Points

  • Some countries have infectious diseases that don’t exist, or aren’t very common, in the UK.
  • Having vaccinations can prevent infectious disease when you travel to some countries.
  • Before you travel it’s important to find out whether you will need vaccinations for the country you’re visiting.
  • Arrange to see your GP or go to a travel health clinic six to eight weeks before you travel.

Featured FAQ

Is there a travel vaccination for malaria?

No, there isn't a vaccine available for malaria, but there are tablets that you can take to prevent it.

You will need to take an antimalarial medicine before, during and after travelling to any area where malaria is widespread. This includes Africa, Central and South America, the Indian subcontinent, South-East Asia and the Pacific islands.

See all our FAQs about travel vaccinations

This factsheet is for people who would like information about travel vaccinations.

Different countries have infectious diseases that don’t exist, or aren’t very common, in the UK. Vaccinations can prevent people who travel to these countries from becoming ill or dying from an infectious disease.

About travel vaccinations

Vaccination involves exposing your body’s immune system to a weakened or harmless version of a bacteria or virus. This helps your body to produce its own antibodies, which will fight the infection for which you have had the vaccination. You can prevent infection from many of the diseases found in foreign countries by being vaccinated before you travel.

Before you travel, it’s important to find out whether you will need vaccinations for the country you’re visiting. In order to visit some countries, you will need to show proof that you have had vaccinations for certain diseases. It’s best to see your GP or go to a travel medicine clinic six to eight weeks before you travel. If there are less than six weeks before you plan to travel, you should still visit your GP or travel clinic. It may be possible to get vaccinated at short notice.

If you need to have more than one injection for a particular disease, this can be done over a number of weeks. The time between injections will allow your body to respond to the vaccine, so you develop immunity ready for when you arrive. You will probably have vaccine injections given in your upper arm or on the outside of your upper thigh.

You’re unlikely to need any vaccinations if you’re going to the United States, Western Europe, and most parts of Australia or New Zealand.

The UK has a routine childhood vaccination programme, which includes vaccinations against diseases such as polio, diphtheria, tetanus and measles. If you didn’t have your routine vaccinations as a child, or if you missed some of them, you may not be protected. If you’re unsure about whether you have been vaccinated, talk to your GP for more information. You may need to have some of the routine childhood vaccinations before you travel.

You will need to pay for some travel vaccinations, not all of them are available from the NHS.

Cholera

Cholera is a bowel infection caused by bacteria. It’s usually spread through infected water or food. Cholera is mainly found in places where there is poor hygiene and sanitation, for example, where there is no clean water or sewers. This includes parts of Africa and Asia. Cholera can cause severe diarrhoea and dehydration, which can be particularly serious in babies, children and older people.

You will need a cholera vaccination if you’re travelling to an area that has a cholera epidemic. An epidemic is when a large number of people are affected by an infectious disease which spreads quickly. You should also have the cholera vaccination if you’re a relief or disaster aid worker, or are travelling to places where you have limited access to medical care.

The cholera vaccine is given as a liquid which you drink. Don’t eat or drink anything for one hour before or after you take the vaccine. Adults need to have two doses between one and six weeks apart. Make sure you have the second dose at least a week before you travel. Children between the ages of two and six need a third dose one to six weeks after the second dose. The vaccine is not recommended for children under two.

The cholera vaccine doesn't give you lifelong immunity and you will need to have a booster to keep you protected. Adults and children over six need the booster two years after the first dose, and children aged two to six need it six months after.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A is a liver disease caused by an infection with the hepatitis A virus. People usually become infected by having food or water that has the virus in it. Hepatitis A causes liver inflammation and becomes more serious the older you are when you get it. The virus is found all over the world, but it’s more common in parts of Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.

You will need to have two hepatitis A injections for your body to develop full immunity to the infection. You should have a booster dose six to 12 months after the first. It’s best to have the first injection about two weeks before you travel, but it’s possible to have it the day before you leave. The vaccine (if the booster dose is given) can give up to 30 years of protection.

You can have a combined vaccine, which protects against hepatitis A and B, or one which jointly protects against hepatitis A and typhoid.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a liver disease caused by infection with the hepatitis B virus. The disease can be mild or severe and for some people the infection can be life-threatening. You get it from direct contact with an infected person’s blood or other body fluids, such as semen or vaginal fluid.

Hepatitis B is found all over the world but it’s more common in Africa, the Middle East and the Far East.

There are different immunisation schedules, but generally you have three doses. After the first dose, you will need the second a month later and a third five months after that. If you need to be vaccinated quickly, you can ask for the vaccinations in a shorter time.

Japanese encephalitis

Japanese encephalitis is a serious viral infection and you can become infected from a mosquito bite. It causes inflammation of the brain and it can be life-threatening. It’s found in Asia and the far north of Australia.

You may need the vaccine if you’re travelling to an endemic area (a place where a particular disease is regularly found) for a month or longer, especially if you’re going to rural areas. Ideally, you should get vaccinated at least a month before you travel.

Adults have two injections and children over the age of one have three, usually over the course of a month. You will need to have a booster 12 months after the initial vaccination if you’re still at risk of being infected.

Meningococcal meningitis

Meningococcal meningitis is an infection that affects the thin lining that surrounds your brain and spinal cord. It’s found all over the world, but it’s most common in central Africa, in countries just below the Sahara desert. You can catch the infection from close contact with infected people, for example, from coughs and sneezes.

If you're staying in a country with a high risk of meningitis and you're backpacking or living in a rural area, you will need to have a combined vaccine against the different types of meningitis. If you’re going on pilgrimage to Mecca then you must have the vaccination before you go. The Saudi Arabian authorities will ask for proof of this before you can enter the country.

You should have the vaccine two weeks before you travel. Adults and children over a year old will need one injection. Children under one year old will need two injections. The first is given two months before travel, the second is given one month after the first.

Poliomyelitis

Poliomyelitis (polio) is caused by a virus. It affects your nervous system and can cause a range of symptoms from fever to paralysis. You catch polio by eating or drinking food or water that has the virus in it, by swimming in dirty water, or by close contact with someone carrying the polio virus. It’s mainly found in Africa and Central Asia.

If you were born before 1962 in the UK, you may not have been adequately vaccinated against polio, or had a low strength vaccine.

If you're travelling to a country where polio is common, you should make sure that you have been fully immunised. This means having a course of 3 injections with two further boosters. The polio vaccine is normally given along with the tetanus and diphtheria vaccination in the same injection. In young children the vaccine is given with pertussis (whooping cough) and HIB (Haemophilus Influenzae Type B) as a 5-in-one injection.

If you’re travelling to a country where the risk of polio infection is high, and you haven’t had a booster within 10 years you may be advised to have one.

Rabies

Rabies is a viral infection that can be spread from animals to people. You can catch it after being bitten or scratched by an infected animal. Both pets and wild animals carry rabies. It’s a serious condition and once symptoms develop there is no specific treatment and the infection is almost always fatal.

Rabies is found throughout the world but it’s more common in Africa, Asia, the Far East, and Central and South America.

You may need a rabies vaccine if you’re travelling for a month or more to an area where the risk of rabies is high and you can’t easily get to medical care. If you may be exposed to rabies due to your activities, for example if you’re working with animals, you may also need the vaccination.

If you need the rabies vaccine, you will usually be given three injections spread over a month. You may need to have booster vaccinations if you remain in high risk areas.

Having the rabies vaccine doesn't mean you're completely immune to the disease. If you’re bitten by an animal and it’s possible that the animal was infected with rabies, then you should get immediate medical help. If you have a further dose of the vaccine and a blood product called immunoglobulin, before any symptoms start, you may be able to prevent rabies from developing.

Tetanus

Tetanus is caused by bacteria that live in the soil. It causes muscle spasms and paralysis and can be life-threatening. You can get tetanus if dirt, dust or manure gets into a cut or wound. Tetanus is found all over the world, but is more common in developing countries.

In the UK, you will usually have had the tetanus vaccine as part of your routine childhood immunisations, unless you were born before 1961 when the UK-wide vaccine programme started. Make sure that you have had the full course of injections – three initial injections with two boosters.

If you're travelling to a country where you won’t be able to get to medical care quickly, you should have a booster vaccination for tetanus if you have not had one within the last 10 years.

Tick-borne encephalitis

Tick-borne encephalitis is a viral infection that is passed on mainly through tick bites. It can cause inflammation of the brain. There are different types of the disease, which are linked to the area they are found in – Europe, the Far East and Siberia. It’s mainly found in the countryside, particularly in woods and forests. You should have the vaccination for tick born encephalitis if you’re travelling to the countryside in an area where the infection is common during spring and summer.

The vaccine is given in three doses over a year. If you need more immediate protection, you can have two doses, two weeks apart.

Typhoid

Typhoid and paratyphoid fever are both caused by bacteria. You become infected by drinking water or eating food that has the bacteria in it. It causes similar symptoms to food poisoning but for some people it can cause more serious problems such as pneumonia and a brain infection. Typhoid outbreaks are most common in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Getting vaccinated against typhoid is important if you're planning to stay in areas where typhoid is common and hygiene is poor. You can have the vaccine as one single injection or as a capsule to swallow in three separate doses. You will need to have a booster vaccine every three years if you continue to visit areas where typhoid is common. You may be able to have a combined typhoid and hepatitis A vaccine, if it’s available – check with your GP or travel clinic.

Yellow fever

Yellow fever is a disease caused by a virus which is passed on by mosquito bites. It can vary in severity. You may have flu like symptoms that get better over a few days, or a severe illness which causes serious damage to your organs and can be fatal. Yellow fever is found mainly in tropical areas of Africa and South America.

You will need to have the yellow fever vaccine if you're going to, or travelling through, a country affected by the disease. If you’re travelling to some of these countries you will need to show certificates to prove you have been vaccinated before you can enter. In the UK, you can only get the vaccination at approved yellow fever vaccination centres.

You will need to have the yellow fever vaccine at least 10 days before you travel. You will be given a certificate that lasts for 10 years. You can have a booster after 10 years if you’re still at risk of getting yellow fever.


Reviewed by Sarah Smith, Bupa Health Information Team, May 2014.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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