What You Need to Know About Travel Vaccines

If you’re traveling abroad this summer, especially to some of the more exotic destinations, it’s important to make sure you get the proper vaccines before you go.

That’s particularly true if you’re going to Africa or South America, where yellow fever has been popping up.

This past week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the U.S. is actually running out of the vaccine needed to prevent the yellow fever virus. The CDC expects to be fully out of this shot by midsummer.

To cover the shortage, the CDC and Food and Drug Administration will turn to a different yellow fever vaccine than the one they normally use. This other shot is already approved in 70 other countries around the world, and is believed to be just as safe and effective as the shot the U.S. normally relies on.

The alternative vaccine hasn’t actually been approved by FDA, so availability in the U.S. will be limited. That will make it tricky to get the shot in time for your upcoming trip to Africa or South America.

Yellow fever is spread through the Aedes aegypti mosquito (the same one that spreads Zika, dengue, and chikungunya). Although the virus was eradicated from much of the world in the mid-1900s, it has re-emerged in recent years in parts of Africa and South America, including, most recently, Brazil.

Of course, yellow fever isn’t the only virus you need to worry about if you’re traveling abroad. Here’s a look at all the shots you should consider before you go.

Yellow Fever

If you’re traveling to a country where yellow fever is spreading, or to a country that requires all visitors to have a yellow fever shot, keep the following things in mind.

1. Plan ahead. Unlike other travel shots, the yellow fever vaccine is only available at specially designated clinics. Because of the shortage, there will be far fewer clinics this summer than there normally are (just 250 instead of 4,000).

2. Don’t skip this shot. Yellow fever is a serious disease. The CDC estimates that it can be fatal in 15 to 20 percent of cases. Find out where the nearest clinic is and make sure you budget enough time to visit.

3. Take other protective measures. Vaccines are not the only bulwark against yellow fever. You can reduce your chances of catching this virus by applying an EPA-approved insect repellent to your exposed skin, and by spraying one on your clothing as well.

Routine Shots

Before any international trip you should make sure you are up to date on all of your routine vaccines: measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP), varicella (chickenpox), polio, and your yearly flu shot. Some of these diseases are quite rare in the U.S., thanks to good vaccine coverage of children here. But the CDC says these same diseases can be much more common in other countries, including areas where you wouldn’t normally worry about travel-related illnesses. For example, in 2011, many American travelers were infected with measles during a large outbreak in Europe. Some of those travelers then passed the disease on to unvaccinated people here. Being up-to-date on your routine vaccines will give you the best protection against these illnesses.

Hepatitis A and B

Hepatitis A is a virus that causes a liver disease by the same name. The virus spreads through contaminated food and through physical contact with an infected person (especially if the infected person doesn’t wash their hands properly after using the bathroom). It is common among people who travel to developing countries, particularly those that visit rural areas (though it can also be spread in more modern tourist accommodations).

The vaccine to prevent this virus—given in two doses, six months apart—is 100 percent effective, according to the CDC. 

Hepatitis B is a different but related virus that passes through blood, semen, and other body fluids. It can disappear after just a few weeks, or it can linger for a lifetime, potentially causing liver disease and cancer.

This virus occurs in nearly every part of the world, but it’s most common in Asia, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. Travel-related cases are generally rare, but can result from unprotected sex, intravenous drug use, and blood transfusions. The vaccine for Hepatitis B is more than 90 percent effective. It’s normally given in three doses spread across six months, but ask your doctor for an accelerated schedule if your travel plans require it. 


Typhoid fever is a serious disease caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi, and spread through contaminated food and water. In rare cases, it can be fatal. Typhoid is rare in developed countries like the U.S., but common in most of the rest of the world, especially South Asia. The U.S. sees about 300 travel-related cases of typhoid fever every year. 

The vaccine for typhoid fever is available as both a pill and an injectible. The pill contains live but weakened bacteria and is given in four doses: One capsule is taken every other day for a week. The injectible contains killed bacteria, and is given in one dose. Both are usually administered about two weeks before traveling. The CDC concedes that the typhoid vaccine (in any form) is only about 50 to 80 percent effective. You should still get it before traveling to an endemic region, but you should also take basic precautions with the food you eat while traveling. 


Rabies is a disease caused by a virus that spreads through the saliva of infected animals. The most common sources of human infection are licks, bites, and scratches from infected dogs, but bats, foxes, raccoons, and mongooses have also been known to pass the disease to humans. Prevention of this disease is especially important because once contracted it is almost always fatal. 

Rabies is found all over the world (except in Antarctica). In most developed countries, including the U.S., the risk of human infection is low because the virus is rare in domestic animals. But in much of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, rabies in dogs is still a problem. 

If you are traveling to a country where the virus is prevalent in dogs, or if your itinerary will bring you into contact with wild animals like bats and other carnivores, you should consider getting a rabies shot before you travel. This vaccine is given in three doses, over a period of three weeks. 

It’s important to note that even if you’ve had your rabies shots, you should still seek immediate medical treatment if you’re bitten or scratched by an animal while traveling. You can’t be too careful when it comes to rabies prevention. 

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