When planning family vacations, check that everyone is up-to-date on their vaccinations. Adults included. Travel increases the risk of catching a host of preventable diseases: measles, mumps, rubella, meningitis and whooping cough (pertussis), to name just a few. And you need not visit Equatorial Africa to become infected. Anyone not fully vaccinated can become infected without leaving this country, especially if you frequent places where travelers congregate such as theme parks, on flights and on cruise ships. Rarely, you can catch one of these diseases in your own eighborhood.
1. Travelers spread diseases. Already in the 14th century, passengers arriving in Venice by ship from plague-infested countries were forced to stay aboard ship for about forty days, until it was clear that the disease was absent. (“Quarantine” comes from the Italian word for forty days.) When Europeans first came to America they brought with them diseases previously unknown in the New World, decimating local populations.
2. More people are traveling than ever before. Every year, millions enter the US, lots of them from poor countries with less than optimal immunization programs. Many are children, the main culprits when it comes to spreading these diseases. They visit amusement parks, fly on domestic airlines, and visit friends and families — sometimes in your neighborhood.
3. There is no practical way to check travelers for contagious diseases. (Except the way the Venetians did.) Infected people start spreading their diseases before they show any signs of being ill. Moreover, because canceling trips at the last minute can be cumbersome and expensive, some parents travel knowing that their children are ill.
4. Air travel helps spread contagious diseases. Fortunately, that spread is limited. Most of the microorganisms that cause these diseases are airborne, that is, the organisms are exhaled, sneezed out or coughed up by infected individuals and then inhaled by susceptible (non-vaccinated) ones. Close, continuous exposure over many hours, as exists on airplanes, increases the risk of becoming infected. However, modern aircrafts have efficient air filtration systems that change cabin air every few minutes. And airflow is from ceiling to floor, not through the entire cabin, limiting the air you breathe to that from passengers in nearby seats.
5. An increasing number of children in this country are not fully vaccinated. Ironically, one reason is the success of vaccination programs. Because most parents have never seen cases of the illnesses that these vaccines prevent, some parents erroneously conclude that vaccination is no longer necessary and that, possibly, the vaccines are more risky than the disease. Not so. Other parents refuse vaccinations on ethical or religious grounds.
6. Many parents ask to have vaccinations “spread out”. They believe it is “too much” to give more than a dozen different vaccines — with some requiring multiple doses — in the first eighteen months of life. However, experience from giving billions of doses and seeing the diseases virtually disappear shows that vaccine scheduling is safe and effective. Moreover, the younger that children are vaccinated, the earlier in life they are protected, often from diseases that are especially troublesome early in life.
7. If routine vaccination programs were discontinued these diseases would quickly return. The causative organisms continue to circulate in many parts of the world, including some in this country. Until all children worldwide are properly immunized, vaccination programs must continue. The more people not vaccinated in this country, the greater the risk that diseases from abroad will establish beachheads here, and then continue to spread.
8. Is your child fully vaccinated? The length of time vaccines are effective varies by vaccine and in some cases the time of effectiveness is proving to be shorter than anticipated. This requires giving multiple booster doses. Moreover, new and improved vaccines appear every few years, many for teenagers. Check with your health care providers. Keep your own records.
9. Travelers going overseas may require additional vaccines. Inform your healthcare providers of your travel plans and do so as soon as your plans are finalized. Most overseas destinations require no additional vaccines for fully vaccinated people.
10. Review periodically the vaccination status of every household member. (Do so even if you don’t travel.) This is especially important if there are infants in your home. Check with your health care providers and have nannies, housekeepers and frequent visitors (grandparents, for example) check with their providers. Flu vaccine must be given yearly. (Safety officials suggest that you check fire alarms and smoke detectors when you adjust your clocks in the spring and fall. Add “check vaccination status” to that list.)