The Uncontroversial Hero: Vaccines

While travelling abroad, your health should be your top priority. It doesn’t matter how fit or healthy you think you are, getting the appropriate medications and vaccinations can mean the difference between life and death. Once you have a rough idea of where you would like to travel, then head to your doctor or your local travel medical clinic to figure out which medications and vaccinations are appropriate. But let’s dwell for a minute on the (un)controversial topic of vaccines.

There are two main types of vaccines. The first is an inactivated vaccine. These vaccines are created using the inactivated (dead) virus during the vaccine making process. The other type is a live vaccine which contains a weakened version of the live virus so that it doesn’t cause serious disease in healthy individuals. An example of a live vaccine would be the Measles Mumps and Rubella Vaccine. Vaccines often contain other preservatives such as stabilizers like gelatin which prevent the vaccine from becoming denatured which is the process in which protein bonds break, rendering the protein nonfunctional due to high temperature and adjuvants which actually boost immune response such as Aluminium salts.

That all does sound a bit intense, but it’s important to know how it works in your body. When a vaccine is injected into the blood, two categories of white blood cells, antibodies and T-lymphocytes, begin to fight the vaccine as if it were a real infection despite being an imitation of an infection. The white blood cells are your body’s immune response, so if when you are travelling the live virus enters your body, your body will “remember” how to fight off the infection. Sometimes, you need multiple shots of the same vaccine to create that immune response. These additional shots are called “boosters” and they function to create an immune response to different phases of the virus or just to different strains of the same virus. [1]

So, if you’re travelling what does the difference between life and death look like when it comes to vaccines? Let’s think of the rabies virus. Now, rabies in itself is nasty, but if you are travelling in a rural area of the Philippines for example, where stray dogs are rampant and can harbour the disease, then a rabies shot is strongly recommended. Why? If bitten by a rabies-infected animal, you need to get to a hospital immediately to seek post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) shots [2]. If, for example, you are in a rural area in the Philippines somewhere like Maligcong where it takes 1 hour to get a small city like Bontoc and then 6 hours to get to the largest city in the region, Baguio, it is a tight time frame. If you are not vaccinated, you are required to get  Rabies Immune Globulin (RIG) serum and 5 PEP shots on the day of exposure, and 3, 7, and 14 days later, and potentially 28 days later if you are immunosuppressed [2]. Then not only do you have to waste a month getting the shots, but you will have to spend a lot of money to do so! The cost varies per country but, but the Center of Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the average cost in Asia is 49 dollars USD per shot [4], though some have claimed to have spent as much as $1000 USD per shot [6]. Multiply that by 5 shots and it is equivalent to 250 dollars on top of the hospital fees and the costs of staying in the city where you will be receiving those shots. If you are vaccinated, however, you avoid the wasting a month getting shots as you only need two on the first and third day after being infected. More importantly, you’ve also avoided death!

Beyond all of this, if you get vaccinated, you are helping the world’s human population by not becoming a carrier of the virus. This means that if you get infected and you are among a population of people who are not vaccinated, they will get infected. Since the development of vaccines, they have reduced diseases like polio and measles. However, in the past year we have been seeing the resurgence of Measles in different parts of the world [3]. One of the primary reasons for this is a movement by a group of often misled or uneducated individuals who call themselves Anti-Vaxxers. In many cases, these individuals are potential carriers and spreaders of a virus that could easily have been vaccinated against. If anyone tells you not to get vaccinated, ignore them, and please go to your doctor and speak with them instead.

For those in Vancouver, I would recommendation going to the Travel Medical Clinic (TMVC), and speaking with the experienced doctors about which vaccinations are appropriate for your travels. Keep in mind, vaccinations and medication are not cheap, so budget your trip accordingly. A study by Thai Researchers showed that one of the reasons backpackers cited for not getting vaccinated against rabies was the cost [5]. Ultimately, however, it is better to be vaccinated than to get infected and ponder in a hospital bed about why on earth you chose not get vaccinated. Vaccines often don’t get the hype that they deserve, but maybe its time to give unsung heroes some credit because if we didn’t have them, most of us would no longer be in existence.

***Keep in mind that this is a science blog, I am not qualified to give medical advice, so always consult your doctor first. Unless you share a doctor with Jenny McCarthy…***


[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Understanding how vaccines work. Retreived from:

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Mar 2016) Rabies. Retreived from:

[3] Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. (Oct 2016) Measles cases and outbreaks. Retreived from:

[4] World Health Organization. (Mar 2016). Rabies Fact Sheet. Retreived from:

[5] Piyaphanee, W. Et al. (2010). Rabies exposure risk among foreign backpackers in Southeast Asia.The American journal of tropical medicine and hygiene. 82(6), 1168-1171.

[6] Lloyd R. (2010). Dog Bite in Bangkok and Rabes Vaccines. Retreived from:


I also recommend getting travel insurance because you never know what medical emergencies could occur. I’ve been using World Nomads since I started my travels and have been very happy with them!