Before any vacation, all travelers have their lists: items to pack, arrangements to make and last-minute details to sort out. But many holiday-goers often forget one important entry on their to-do lists: get vaccinated.
More than 68 million Americans traveled abroad last year, U.S. Department of Commerce data show. Travel increases stress on the immune system, which can leave vacationers more vulnerable to illness. If that weren't bad enough, vaccines specifically prevent the transmission of preventable diseases that would otherwise ruin a perfectly good vacation... or worse.
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Take the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, for example. According to a study of 40,000 U.S. travelers, 16 percent were eligible to receive the vaccine, because they were either not immunized or under-immunized per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. Of those eligible, fewer than half bothered to get the shot.
Measles is a highly contagious disease, which means travelers that contract it are not only putting themselves at risk but also everyone else around them who also isn't properly immunized. Some travelers visiting countries with high standards of living may think they can avoid the illness, but measles can pop up unexpectedly on many different tours.
"Many travelers heading to developed countries, including those in Europe, might not realize that there are outbreaks of measles occurring in those areas, and they are at risk for becoming ill," said Emily Hyle of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, who is lead author of the study.
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Hepatitis A is another illness preventable with vaccines. Typically seen in countries with infrastructure issues leading to inadequate sanitation or limited clean drinking water, this disease is most often contracted through contaminated food or waste and can lead to exhaustion, fever and stomach pain, among other symptoms, guaranteeing an unpleasant end to a vacation.
Because hepatitis A comes in a series and, like many vaccines, takes time to confer immunity, travelers have to plan well in advance to ensure they are immunologically equipped for their next trip.
Vaccines, of course, aren't only a concern for travelers, but for everyone. Adults in the United States, however, tend to skip routine vaccinations or boosters, according to CDC data.
For example, tdap, a combination vaccine that protects against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough), requires a booster every 10 years. Less than two-thirds of Americans between 19 and 65 followed up with a booster, however.
The figures dipped further for seniors, ages 65 and older, with only 56 percent of them receiving the vaccine. Numbers are even lower across all age groups among adults inoculated against diseases like hepatitis A, hepatitis B or HPV, the CDC found.
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According to information provided by the World Health Organization (WHO), vaccines save an estimated 2 million to 3 million lives annually. In addition to the deaths prevents and illnesses avoided, immunization also happens to be one of the most cost-effective public health strategies. Vaccines are often cheaper than the illnesses themselves due to money saved on hospitalizations and prescription drugs.
Given how much of the focus on vaccinations places the spotlight on children's health, and understandably so, adults can easily overlook the fact that immunizations can require a lifetime of upkeep. It can also be easy to lose track of when vaccines are needed. For that, the CDC provides a schedule online including which diseases have vaccines available and how many times inoculations are necessary for immunity.