If you’ve ever caught a bug while travelling, you know that being sick on the fly is a real vacation spoiler. It’s true that globetrotting exposes us to wonderful new things, but there is a risk of being exposed to some harmful ones as well.
For Canadians looking to make international travel plans, there is a wide range of preventative treatments available to anyone who wants to traverse any part of our globe. Travellers can find general information on government websites, but travel health clinics across the country can help tailor advice to a specific itinerary with nuanced recommendations that might vary depending on urban versus rural environments, plus seasonal considerations
Dr. Gio Miletto, medical director of Travel Medicine and Vaccination Centres in British Columbia (with 18 locations across the province), says that itinerary details are key when deciding which vaccines are relevant. “A week in Mexico or Cuba on a resort is very different from three weeks trekking around Mongolia – and there is a lot of adventure travel going on with older travellers.”
He says Canadians need to consult medical experts in conjunction with planning their trips – something that’s still a hard sell for many. “They have done surveys at the airports, asking Canadian travellers whether they consulted a travel health before their travels, and the numbers are incredibly low.”
Some travellers might lack awareness about the risks of visiting to certain regions, and others might be price sensitive. (Most provincial healthcare plans do not cover travel-related care, which can get pricey.)
But Dr. Miletto thinks that the reluctance to seek out this kind of preventative care is also related to our geographic good fortune. “We live in a very privileged environment in terms of public health,” he says. “You forget that there are parts of the world where people get sick and die of preventable diseases. Many vaccines exist for these things because there is no good treatment.”
Commonly recommended vaccines for globetrotters
Hepatitis Many Canadians will be familiar with the high-profile Twinrix vaccine, which protects against hepatitis A (a food-borne illness) and hepatitis B (transmitted through blood). Hepatitis vaccines became routine in the early 1980s, so many older travellers might not yet be inoculated. “Hepatitis really is ubiquitous and you can catch it anywhere in the world from eating,” says Dr. Miletto. “It’s a no brainer. The vaccine is safe and effective, and if you get the booster then it lasts the rest of your life.”
Tetanus Many Canadians might not remember their last tetanus shot, but it’s worth keeping it up to date. “If you’re on a cycle tour and you fall off your bike, you might wish you had it,” says Dr. Miletto. That’s especially true if you’re going to be in a rural region or an area where you’re not certain about safe access to medical care.
Typhoid This food-borne illness is an easy-to-catch type of salmonella, and the vaccine is typically recommended for those travelling in India and parts of Southeast Asia.
Meningitis A meningitis vaccine is often recommended for those heading to parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, especially during the dry season.
Yellow Fever More mature travellers to South American and Sub-Saharan Africa should consider this vaccine carefully, as the risks of complications increase as you age. “You really have to make a judgment about how long you’re going to be exposed for and if it’s a country where there’s particularly high risk,” says Dr. Miletto. For those who are considering prolonged travel to regions with yellow fever, he recommends speaking to a healthcare professional sooner rather than later.
Rabies The risk of contracting rabies is highest in countries with large stray dog populations, particularly China and India. Treatment for rabies can be both difficult and difficult to find so travellers should consider it, Dr. Miletto recommends. He also recommends the vaccine for those considering cycling tours in Southeast Asia, where stray dogs have been known to chase bikes.
Japanese Encephalitis This virus spread by mosquitos in Southeast Asia is very rare but often fatal, and there’s no treatment for it. “It’s not for people spending a week in Bali, but you should consider it if you’re spending a prolonged period of time off the beaten track in India and in Southeast Asia,” says Dr. Miletto.