Vaccine passports and travel: The vaccines travellers should get (in addition to COVID-19)

Is the COVID-19 injection going to become a prerequisite for overseas travel?

While Qantas CEO Alan Joyce might insist on it as a condition for international travel aboard the airline, the World Health Organization has recently announced its opposition to such a requirement.

Their reason is the uncertainty surrounding the effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing transmission of COVID-19. Even when you've been vaccinated you can still contract the virus, and we don't yet know whether you can become a transmitter. 

There's also an ethical question since such a requirement discriminates against those who are not able to have the vaccination, such as pregnant women, or from countries where the vaccine is unavailable. After all, there are plenty of other viruses in the world and with the single exception of yellow fever, there is no requirement that travellers prove they've been vaccinated against them. 

So which vaccines do we need when we travel overseas?

It's complicated. The health map of the world is a mosaic with risks that differ from one country to another, and it changes. A two-week self-drive tour in New Zealand poses very different health risks from a Nile River cruise. Even neighbouring countries can have different risk profiles that will determine what vaccines are appropriate.

For example, cholera is a slight risk in parts of India but not in neighbouring Bhutan. Rabies is a small risk in some parts of Malaysia, but not in Singapore. The health risks in Papua New Guinea, our nearest neighbour, are very different from those in Australia. They also shift from time to time, and that impacts on the vaccinations you're going to need.

Even within a particular country, there is no vaccine regimen that is right for all travellers all the time. Whether you're visiting cities or rural areas and in which parts of the country, what type of accommodation you're staying in, what activities, the time of year and your own state of health are all factors that will shape what vaccines are advisable.

So how do you find out which vaccines you need?

A useful first stop in both cases is the website of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has a comprehensive profile of every country from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe with the potential health risks and advice on vaccinations.

If you have an underlying health condition or you're planning a trip to the third world, particularly where medical services are limited, you might consider a consultation with a travel medical specialist such as Travelvax or the International Travel Vaccination Centre. Do this well in advance of your travels. If you need a hepatitis B vaccination, the schedule most often used for children and adults is three intramuscular injections, the second and third doses administered one and six months after the first dose. Also, at times some vaccines might be harder to obtain. Yellow fever vaccine is currently in short supply in some parts of the US for example.


Regardless of where you go, the major vaccinations you need include but are not limited to chickenpox, diphtheria, measles-mumps-rubella and polio. Most adults in Australia would have had these vaccinations while the flu vaccination is less common but advised.

Depending on where you're going, and when and how you travel, vaccination against cholera, hepatitis A and B, meningococcal meningitis, yellow fever, rabies and typhoid might also be recommended.

Another issue is malaria. There are several of anti-malarial drugs, which vary in effectiveness according to country of travel, but there is no effective vaccine.

Are any vaccinations compulsory?

The one vaccination that is commonly required is yellow fever. In South America, yellow fever is found anywhere between Panama in the north and Argentina in the south. In Africa between Sudan in the north and Angola in the south. The countries that tourists are most likely to visit in this region include Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya. Of those three, only Uganda requires proof of a yellow fever vaccination as a condition of entry. However, many other countries require proof of vaccination for travellers coming from countries where yellow fever is present.

Australia does not. According to Australia's Department of Health, while unvaccinated travellers returning from a yellow fever zone will not be denied entry to Australia, "Vaccination is still strongly recommended for travellers who have never been vaccinated for yellow fever and who intend to travel to countries where there is a risk of transmission."  Border Force staff might ask about your yellow fever vaccination status if you're returning from a potential risk area.

See also: Yellow fever: The virus travellers already have to prove they're immune to

Are other vaccinations compulsory?

Apart from yellow fever, these vaccinations are optional. While there is now a significant anti-vaxxer movement around the world, in most cases those who have chosen not to be vaccinated face limited risk within our shores. That might not be the case in other countries. Anyone who travels to developing countries without the appropriate vaccinations could be putting their health on the line. In some cases, anyone who has not been vaccinated and becomes infected might find the health cover that comes with their travel insurance policy will be void since they did not take all reasonable steps to avoid infection.

Given all the permutations, and in the light of recent discussions about a COVID-19 vaccination passport, it might be time to consider a smartphone app or a microchip card with a complete picture of our vaccination status. Why not? For decades we've been travelling with an International Certificate of Vaccination, a yellow booklet with all our relevant travel vaccinations recorded, so why not a digital version of the same thing?

See also: ​Emirates superjumbo takes vaccinated passengers on a flight to nowhere

See also: Think countries are opening up now there's a vaccine? Think again