In the Suitcase: keeping track of your immunizations

In preparation for our trip to Kenya and Tanzania, Jon and I went to get vaccinnated against anything our weak little American bodies can’t handle. There’s nothing like watching people in my office use toilet paper to open door handles because they’re so afraid of catching a parasite or something from their diseased colleague and then reading the CDC’s travel web site about all the wonderful worlds of bacterias and viruses we’d be exposed to while abroad.

Fortunately I’d already been vaccinated before traveling to India and Paraguay, so all I needed was a shot for yellow fever and a prescription for malarial pills and some Cipro. Jon had been vaccinated for a few before he traveled to Ecuador, but he wasn’t sure if he had completed his Hepatits A, exactly when he had his measles-mumps-rubella finished (likely in childhood), whether he’d had a tetanus shot recently and he thinks he might have had a meningitis shot once in college. We’d both brought the only immunization records we had, which was from a few years ago, but they were missing information prior to 2006.

There were a lot of questions: “I think I was vaccinated for Hepatitis B? Or was it A? Is TB the four-prong thumbtack one?” Yes, the nurse could have just shot me with another dose of Hep A and I wouldn’t come down with the disease, but it also cost $100 per shot of Hep A and B. Yellow fever was $130. Rabies series cost $740, which the nurse said we should just deal with if we ended up getting bitten by a monkey or dog and perhaps we shouldn’t try to pet any wild animals while over there. In addition, insurance did not cover any of it, except the basic childhood ones. Malarial pills should be covered. Our total was $615, including a consultation so we understood not to eat raw salads, to sleep under mosquito nets treated with DEET and to contact the embassy if we get sick.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to go straighten your medical history, especially if you’re a regular traveler, and make sure you’re covered for all the different vaccinations that may be required in different countries. All you need to do is contact the previous doctors and travel clinics you might have visited and get copies of your records sent to you. Several of these vaccines, once completed, protect you for life. Others may require a re-dosage after 10 years.

You can also opt to have your blood tested for immunity and see which ones have already been covered. This is only ideal if you’re missing information on several and not just one. It costs to have your blood tested and then you may have to pay just as much to be vaccinated for the one that you were searching for. Also, it’s possible to select your vaccinations. The nurse said that Tanzania falls into the “meningitis” belt but that it should be updated because it wasn’t a problem anymore, but Kenya was out of the meningitis belt. We decided to forgo the meningitis vaccination. However, if the nurse strongly recommended it, we probably would have bought into it.

Malaria is a pain because even if you take malarial pills, you’re not completely out of harm’s way. You should still exercise the same caution as if you haven’t been vaccinated against anything. Sure, people live in these countries and seem to handle life fine without any shots or medications, but be aware that they’ve also had a longer time (than your vacation) to develop these immunities. I’ve read about morons who travel over and want to develop the immunity the “natural” and organic way, but were probably sadly disappointed when they came down with malaria fairly quickly. 

Lastly, it’s just good practice to wash your hands frequently, don’t drink the water or eat the ice, don’t eat anything potentially washed in that water, don’t try to feed random animals, don’t do drugs and don’t sleep with strangers. But do have fun!

Some good resources:

CDC
MD Travel Health
World Health Organization

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