Travel vaccinations – are you clued up?

Specialist Travel Health Nurse, MASTA
16 June 2016
A woman taking a photo on her phone out of a car window

Flights – check, hotel – check, sunscreen – check. When it comes to travel, going abroad is exciting. But don’t let excitement get in the way of important health considerations – one of those being travel vaccinations. Travel Health Nurse, Michelle Sellors, gives us five minutes of valuable vaccination information.

Certain diseases are more common in some parts of the world than others. This is why it’s important to make sure you’re vaccinated against the right diseases, based on where you’re travelling to.

Not only will a travel nurse ask you about where you’re going, they’ll also consider the time of year, the time you’re planning to spend in that country, any medicines you already take, planned activities and the type of accommodation you’re staying in.

Here, I’ve answered some common questions related to travel vaccinations and antimalarials, then gone into a bit of detail about five of the most commonly recommended vaccines.

What is a vaccine?

This animation by Bupa shows very simply how a vaccine prevents a disease caused by bacteria.

How far in advance should I have vaccinations before travelling?

Seek travel health advice at least six to eight weeks before you’re due to go away. But if you’re due to go away sooner, it’s still worth getting an appointment as some vaccines and antimalarials can be given at the last minute. If you need a course of vaccines and don’t have time to have them all, still see your travel nurse as some protection is better than nothing.

Are there any common reactions to travel vaccinations?

You might have some soreness or redness in the area you had the injection, but this won’t last long. There’s also a chance of fever, sickness, diarrhoea and headache. Each vaccine or antimalarial course has different side-effects. Your travel nurse will explain to you about any potential side-effects before you have the vaccines and will happily answer any questions you may have.

Common vaccinations

Below is a brief overview of five of the most commonly recommended travel vaccinations or antimalarials.

1. Hepatitis A

What is it?

Hepatitis A is a viral disease which affects your liver. You can get it if you eat or drink food or water that’s contaminated with human faeces. Ice, undercooked shellfish and unwashed fruit and raw vegetables can all be sources of hepatitis A. It’s a worldwide disease, which can be transmitted directly from person to person, and is most common in developing countries with poor sanitation and overcrowding.


There’s an effective hepatitis vaccine available, which provides virtually 100 percent protection. When travelling, minimise your risk of hepatitis A by avoiding food and water which may be contaminated and taking particular care over your personal hygiene. 

2. Malaria

What is it?

Malaria is a serious illness caused by an infection of your red blood cells with a parasite called Plasmodium. You can get malaria if you’re bitten by an infected female Anopheles mosquito. Malaria is most common in large areas of Africa, Central and South America, parts of the Caribbean, Asia, Eastern Europe and the South Pacific. Your risk of getting malaria differs greatly from region to region and from person to person.


Seek travel health advice before you depart and learn how to reduce your chances of getting bitten. For example, when travelling, use insect repellent, cover your arms and legs with loose fitting clothing, and use a mosquito net.

There are antimalarial tablets available. Talk to your travel health advisor or nurse for more information. No tablets are 100 percent effective, but combining these medicines with the tips above on how to avoid getting bitten can offer a good level of protection.

3. Rabies

What is it?

Rabies is a viral infection that’s usually transmitted by a bite or scratch from an infected animal. It can be found on all continents, except Antarctica. Dog bites are the most common cause of infection.


When travelling, you should avoid contact with both wild and domestic animals. If you do get bitten or scratched, cleanse the area with soap and warm water, apply antiseptic, cover with a dressing, and don’t allow your wound to be stitched. Your travel nurse may recommend a pre-exposure immunisation course, which consists of three vaccines, depending on where you are travelling and for how long. This will also reduce the number of vaccines you’ll need if you do get rabies.

4. Yellow fever

What is it?

Yellow fever is a viral infection that can cause a flu-like illness. You can get yellow fever if you’re bitten by an infected mosquito. There’s a risk of yellow fever in tropical areas of Africa, South America, Eastern Panama in Central America and Trinidad in the Caribbean.


Stopping yourself from getting bitten in the first place and having the yellow fever vaccine is recommended for anyone over nine months old who is travelling to or living in areas where there’s a risk of the disease. The vaccine is very effective and gives you long-lasting protection, but it may not be suitable for everyone. 

5. Japanese encephalitis

What is it?

Japanese encephalitis is a viral infection that causes your brain to become swollen and inflamed. The virus is found throughout most of Asia and parts of the Western Pacific. Disease is mainly spread in rural agricultural areas, as the virus mainly affects pigs and wading birds.


If you’re travelling to parts of the world where you could get Japanese encephalitis, take steps to avoid mosquito bites. If you’re travelling for a short time, your risk of getting the disease is very low. There’s an effective vaccine available, which may be offered to you if:

  • you’re staying in a rural area affected by the disease for longer than a month
  • you’re visiting during the season when your chance of getting the virus is high
  • your planned activities increase your risk of exposure, such as camping, cycling or field work

The main thing to remember is that there’s no such thing as an ‘average’ when it comes to travel health. Always seek medical advice before embarking on a trip away. Rules and recommendations can change overnight – just as we’re seeing with the yellow fever situation in Africa at the moment.

Seek proper, professional health advice for your particular journey and circumstances. This will give you peace of mind, leaving you free to enjoy your trip abroad.

Logo for Masta, who Bupa works in partnership with to deliver travel health servicesBupa is proud to work in partnership with MASTA - the Medical Advisory Service for Travellers Abroad - to deliver travel health services including travel health advice, vaccinations, and antimalarials. Travel services are available at a range of Bupa Health Centres. MASTA‘s services are also available to those aged under 18.

Michelle Sellors
Specialist Travel Health Nurse, MASTA

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