Along with applying for a passport, sorting out your travel vaccinations for Asia should be done early in the trip-planning process. Some of the recommended vaccinations require more than one injection that must be spaced over time to reach full immunity — get yourself to a travel clinic early!
You may have to pay out of pocket for some travel vaccinations; meanwhile, insurance could cover Tdap (tetanus) or others. Ask first to save some money! People who served in the military or in public service jobs may have received some boosters.
Here comes the disclaimer: The information below is simply to help you make informed choices — don't let it replace medical advice from a doctor!
Visiting a Travel Clinic
If you aren't sure about which vaccinations you currently have, see a travel clinic at least two months before your trip date. Don't despair if you don't have much preparation time. In some instances, you can receive the first injection then get the required booster once you return from your trip.
Unfortunately, travel clinics may not always have the most breaking information for an area. They have an entire world to cover. The default is to err on the side of caution, as doctors should, and recommend vaccinations (some are costly) you may not actually need. Inform yourself by doing research:
Deciding which travel vaccinations to get before your trip to Asia basically comes down to your own personal decision. How much peace of mind are you willing to pay for? And how much risk, even if minor, are you willing to shoulder? Travel vaccinations can be expensive if you're getting immunized for the first time.
Vaccinations or not, you shouldn't skimp on getting some travel insurance for your trip. Along with evacuating you if necessary, a good policy will cover you for something common that vaccinations can't help with: vehicle accidents.
Required Vaccinations for Asia
Technically, there are no "required" vaccinations for Asia, however, there are "recommended" travel vaccinations.
If you are traveling to Asia from places with a risk for yellow fever, you may be required to show proof of yellow fever immunization before entering some countries. Keep your medical passport / immunization record inside your passport.
Tip: Many vaccinations last for years, if not a lifetime. Keep a spreadsheet or records of your vaccinations so that you do not forget later!
Recommended Travel Vaccinations for Asia
If a majority of your time in Asia will be spent in cities and in tourist areas, you probably only need the basic vaccinations.
If you intend to volunteer in rural areas, trek through the jungle for weeks at a time, or will be in areas with limited access to medical aid, your needs are obviously different.
Tetanus / Diphtheria
- Who: If you can't remember when you received your last tetanus shot, get one.
- How: A single injection (TDaP) typically combines both tetanus and diphtheria.
- Duration: A tetanus vaccination is good for 10 years.
Measles / Mumps / Rubella (MMR)
- Who: With a worldwide resurgence of measles, all travelers should ask their primary care physician if getting a booster is necessary. Age plays a role.
- How: A single booster shot is needed for some adults, depending on age. An antibodies test can be administered.
- Duration: A single booster is good for life.
- Who: Adults who received an oral dose as a child should ask about getting another oral dose as a booster.
- How: The polio vaccine can be taken orally (OPV) or as an injection (IPV) combined with other vaccinations such as tetanus and diphtheria.
- Duration: A single booster is good for life.
Hepatitis A and B
- Who: Everyone should have their hepatitis immunization up to date. This is useful at home, too!
- How: Hep A and B are sometimes combined into a single injection. A series of three injections are often spaced over months to reach full immunity. Receiving just two of the three will provide protection until you return for a booster after your trip.
- Duration: If all three injections are received with correct timing, protection is good for at least 20 years and maybe life. The CDC and WHO disagree, but it lasts a long time!
Typhoid fever is contracted through contaminated water. Dirty ice, fruit or salad washed with dirty water, and wet plates in restaurants can all be possible culprits.
- Who: Typhoid is recommended for travelers to countries where the water is not safe to drink (i.e., much of Asia).
- How: Oral capsules are available in the United States, as well as a single injection. Four capsules are required for immunity; you take a capsule every other day at home. A single injection can also provide immunity, however, for a shorter duration.
- Duration: The oral vaccine for typhoid provides immunity for five years; the injection only protects you for 2 – 3 years.
Japanese encephalitis is carried by mosquitoes in rural areas and causes brain swelling. Despite the risk, travelers often opt to skip this one due to expense and rarity.
- Who: Your chances of encountering Japanese encephalitis are low. Only travelers who plan to live or travel in rural areas for extended amounts of time should consider this vaccination.
- How: Unfortunately, the Japanese encephalitis vaccination is one of the most expensive. Two injections are required spaced one month apart, and a possible third booster is needed one year later if you still have chance of exposure.
- Duration: The CDC does not have accurate data for how long immunization lasts. Even getting vaccinated does not guarantee full protection against Japanese encephalitis. Instead, learn how to avoid mosquito bites in the first place!
Rabies carries a zero percent chance of survival if contracted and you do not seek medical help. Fortunately, the rabies vaccine can be received after you think you have been exposed. Even if you were vaccinated before your trip, you'll still have to go for injections if you are bitten by a rabid animal. Rabies is another good reason why you shouldn't feed or interact with the monkeys in Asia!
- Who: Travelers who intend to work with animals, spend significant time caving, or think they have an increased chance of being bitten should get vaccinated.
- How: A series of three vaccinations is needed; boosters are only required if you have been bitten.
- Duration: You only need to get vaccinated for rabies once, however, you should get booster shots if you are bitten.
Dengue fever is the most prevalent mosquito-borne illness in Asia. The fever is epidemic in many parts of Southeast Asia. Although survivable, it could put you out of commission for several weeks or a month. Getting a different strain of dengue fever a second time is far riskier.
Unfortunately, the much anticipated vaccination for dengue fever has issues. Currently, it's recommended only for travelers who have already had dengue fever once. Again, the best prevention is to avoid as many mosquito bites as possible, particularly at dawn and dusk. The same species of mosquitoes also transmits the Zika virus.