Prepared Traveler 101: Travel Vaccinations for Children

Adult lifting baby on beach at sunset
(Jude Beck on Unsplash)

Traveling exposes us to new experiences, but it can also expose our immune systems to unfamiliar diseases, ones not covered by routine vaccinations in our home countries. For this reason, travel immunizations are a vital part of preparation for travel to certain countries.

According to the CDC, close to 2.4 million children from the United States travel internationally every year. And when it comes to illness, kids face the same risks as adults. But here’s the trick: Depending on their age, kids may not have completed their routine vaccine schedule yet; and for travel-specific vaccines, different recommendations sometimes apply to children. That’s why pre-travel care at a travel clinic can protect you and your children while you’re traveling, and keep everyone safe and happy as you explore the world.

Which vaccines should my kid get before traveling?

Recommended or required vaccines for travel depend on the destination. And in some cases, recommended vaccines are based on the specific health risks. To start, check the CDC travel vaccination website to get a sense of which vaccines are recommended, and then follow up with a travel clinic visit or appointment with a travel medicine specialist. These specialists provide tailored information based on the destination and vaccination schedule of your child, and can help you decide if optional vaccinations are right for your situation.

Recommendations and vaccination schedules vary depending on where you live (schedules vary among countries, states, and provinces), your child’s health, and the type of vaccine. A travel specialist can help you know if any additional travel vaccines are recommended. Here is a list of travel related vaccines and minimum age of administration.

Do some routine childhood vaccines require an adjusted agenda for travel?

Before you go on any trip, your children should be up-to-date on their routine immunizations, and in some cases, routine vaccination schedules may need to be adjusted to provide extra protection for travel.

For example, often MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) is given at the one-year-old visit. But in case of travel, your travel specialist may recommend giving a dose of MMR vaccine before the age of 12 months (minimum six months old). Note that in this case, you’ll still need to re-vaccinate the full course (two doses for MMR vaccine), after the age of one year old.

When should vaccination be assessed?

Once you’ve booked your travel, it’s a good idea to start assessing which vaccines you and your children should receive. You should schedule an appointment at your doctor’s office or at a travel vaccine clinic at least four to six weeks before you leave. The ideal time to receive vaccines is usually at least a month before departure. This allows your body time to build the protective immunity before you travel.

However, even if you’ve left it to the last minute, a pre-trip doctor’s appointment is still important. Immunizations can still be necessary, and pre-travel care extends beyond vaccinations. You and your child may still benefit from medicine to bring along in case of illness, and doctors are the best source of pre-travel medical advice.

How effective are vaccines?

The effectiveness of vaccines varies. In general, most childhood vaccines provide over 90% protection against diseases that are otherwise related to severe complications and death. Factors contributing to the effectiveness of vaccines include the recipient’s age, the recipient’s health status, the recipient’s immune response to the vaccine, and how well the vaccine components match the disease-causing bacteria/virus circulating in the population. Rarely, people who have only developed partial immunity to the vaccine may acquire the disease. In this case, the vaccine helps reduce disease severity and prevent complications.

Are vaccines safe for my kids?

Yes, vaccines that are currently available have been fully tested and approved for use by the government. Vaccines stimulate the body to develop protective responses and make antibodies against a disease. As a result, you and your child can be protected against the disease when you’re exposed to the actual bacteria/virus in the future. 

Rarely, vaccines may be contraindicated in some children. Common adverse effects of vaccines are minor and usually include fever and swelling or soreness at the injection site. Talk with a travel healthcare provider to know if a vaccine is right for your child, and about how to manage any adverse effect.

Does my child really need a vaccine against a disease that is now rare?

Widely adopted vaccination schedules are effective, and may help explain the scarcity of diseases such as varicella or measles in your home country. However, these diseases can still be prevalent in other parts of the world where such vaccination schedules are not in place. Traveling to such a country without immunization may expose your child to these preventable diseases. In addition, travellers can unknowingly bring back the disease-causing bacterial/virus. If the community is not protected by vaccines, these diseases can quickly spread again.

Will giving multiple vaccines at the same time overload a baby’s immune system?

The safety of giving multiple vaccines at once has been established by numerous studies. In fact, children are exposed to lots of foreign particles from the environment and their diets every day without adverse outcomes. Similarly, the amount of bacterial/viral particles in vaccines is not adequate to cause harm. Giving multiple vaccines at once ensures the child will acquire protection as early as possible, and prevents unnecessary delay in vital vaccinations.

Generally, there is no upper limit for the number of vaccines that can be given at the same time. However, if live vaccines are to be given at separate times, each dose should be spaced out at least 28 days.

Tips for preparing families for healthy travels:

  • Schedule your travel clinic/travel medicine specialist appointment for four to six weeks prior to departure.
  • Bring immunization records to every clinic visit so the health provider can sign and date each vaccination.
  • Bring your family’s immunization record with you when you travel. 

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Crystal Zhang and Gabrielle Asselin also contributed to this story.

Stephanie El-Chakieh
Stephanie El-Chakieh is a doctor in pharmacy with extensive practice in pharmacies and hospital settings in the province of Quebec, Canada. She is a board member of Pharmacists without Borders Canada (PSF). Stephanie also acted as a consultant for international companies in the repatriation and travel insurance industry. After traveling to over 30 countries, Stephanie decided to dedicate her practice to improving travelers’ health. She founded HealthyVoyage, a purpose-driven startup with the mission to help travelers explore the world while remaining safe and healthy; and Volexicon, a travel medicine database with international brand names of commonly used medications.