page last updated: June 2013
Vaccinations for a Backpacking Trip
The issue of what vaccinations you need before a backpacking trip is something that seems to divide opinion even amongst medical professionals.
Obviously what vaccinations you need are dependent on where you are going and it’s worth going to your local doctor surgery at least a month before you travel to enquire about which vaccinations they think you need. It is certainly worth taking the strongly recommended ones as there are many serious diseases out there that you don’t want to catch.
They may also try and encourage you to have several other vaccinations which are often not totally necessary so this is where you are in a bit of a grey area and it comes more down to personal judgement. We are not medical professionals so we cannot say you should or shouldn’t get this but we can give you a fair indication as to what vaccinations travellers tend to opt for.
These are some of the most common diseases travellers get vaccinated or take precautions against ahead of a backpacking trip: (You may well find you are already protected against some of them from vaccinations you had when you were younger)
For visits to developing countries, backpackers tend to always get vaccinated against the following two diseases:
Hepatitis A- This is a liver infection that can occur by eating food or drinking water that has become contaminated by infected people. It is pretty common in countries where hygiene is not all it should be. You normally receive one injection and then a booster dose 6 or 12 months later and you will be protected for 10 years.
Typhoid- You can take pills for this instead but if you’re going on a long trip and aren’t freaked out by needles you may as well get the single jab which protects you for 3 years. The disease is potentially life threatening and most common in Southern Asia. It is also normally passed on through food/water supply so is a major risk in many developing countries.
(Visit your doctors surgery at least 2 weeks before travelling to get your Typhoid and Hep A vaccinations.)
Other diseases to contend with that you may require jabs for depend on the countries you plan to visit, the total length of your trip and the nature of the it (e.g. if you’re planning multi-day treks into the jungle where you’ll be more than 24 hours from a medical facility you are likely to need more vaccinations).
Hepatitis B- This one is similar to Hep A but requires 3 doses and is caught in different ways such as through infected needles, by having sex or coming into contact with the blood of an infected person. It is sometimes recommended if you are planning a long trip (over 3 months) in an area where Hep B is prevalent. It is worth visiting your doctor over a month before your trip to see if they reckon you’ll be needing it. This is because the course of jabs is spread over 3 weeks.
Yellow Fever- This is a viral infection that is passed onto humans via certain types of mosquitoes. The only infected countries are in South America and Africa. If you are planning to visit a country with a yellow fever problem you should get vaccinated. You may even be required to show a certificate of vaccination if you are arriving in a new country from an infected area. One jab will provide you with 10 years of cover but you will almost certainly have to pay for it.
Diphtheria- This is an often fatal respiratory infection and is common in Western Europe as well as less developed regions. You would probably have been vaccinated against this as an infant but may require another jab because they only cover you for 10 years.
Rabies- People catch rabies normally by being bitten by an infected dog or bat and it is still a deadly disease even occasionally in the United States. You may well be encouraged to have this course of jabs, but most travellers tend not to bother. What is crucially important ( whether you have or haven’t had the jab) is that if you are bitten by an animal on your travels you seek immediate first aid. Having the vaccination will mean if you are bitten, you will have slightly more time to seek first aid and the post-bite treatment should be quicker. If you envisage yourself ever being over 24 hours travel from a doctor/hospital then you may want to consider this but most backpackers don’t get the rabies jab.
Japanese Encephalitis- A viral disease that is also the result of those blooming mosquitoes. It normally results in nothing more than mild flu-like problems however very occasionally it can lead to serious brain damage. The disease is only really prevalent during certain times of the year in parts of Asia. You may be advised to have the vaccination if you are travelling for more than a month in a badly affected area.
Malaria- This disease which starts with fever like symptoms is one of the leading causes of death in the world causing around 2 million fatalities (mostly Africans who cannot afford treatment) each year. You can catch malaria by being bitten by certain types of mosquitoes in tropical areas. There are several different pills you can take to help lower the risk of catching the disease. It is important to speak to a health professional before making your choice as not all malaria tablets work in all parts of the world (resistance has built up in some areas making certain pills ineffective). You can also use mosquito nets and repellents to help protect you and they are still advisable even if you’re taking pills. It can take up to a year before you start getting symptoms so if you get ill once you return home, it is important to mention to your doctors that you have recently visited malaria infected regions. There is no vaccination against Malaria.
Remember– Although most vaccinations are very effective, few guarantee you total immunity from the diseases. Common sense precautions you should bear in mind on your travels include:
Avoid touching stray animals.
Always practice safe sex, use condoms.
Don’t drink tap water unless you know for sure it’s okay to drink.
Take precautions against mosquito bites.
Seek medical advice if you are worried you may have become infected with any of these diseases.
We should also point out that although the list of dangerous tropical diseases may seem endless, very few travellers get seriously ill and they shouldn’t put you off visiting poor undeveloped countries.
Other useful resources on Travel Health/Vaccinations include: