Travelling for March Break? Measles vaccines aren't the only shots you should have, says a doctor

Ahead of March Break, an infectious disease specialist shares what Canadians need to know about vaccines.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Dr. Theresa Tam in front of Canada flags while speaking about measles vaccines.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, recently urged Canadians travelling during March Break to vaccinated against measles. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

March Break is almost here and that means sun, fun and — for many people — travel. But one thing you should be adding to your to-do list before taking off? Vaccines. In a media release earlier this month, Canadian chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam urged travelling Canadians to get up to date on their measles vaccines amid a global escalation of the illness.

"I strongly advise everyone in Canada to be vaccinated with two doses of a measles vaccine, especially before travelling," she said in the release. "If needed, measles vaccination should optimally be given at least two weeks before departure, but there are still benefits if given less than two weeks before travelling."

But measles aren't the only viral infection travellers should be concerned about when going abroad. Below, read everything you need to know about getting vaccinated before you take off.

Why are measles cases going up?

If you're wondering where this surge in measles came from, the most basic answer is that vaccine rates are faltering.

"There are likely several reasons driving faltering vaccines, but ultimately when you have fewer people getting vaccinated for this infection, you're going to see outbreaks," noted Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a Canadian infectious disease specialist.

In some parts of the world, this could be due to ongoing barriers to vaccine access, cost, transportation issues, language barriers or disinformation about vaccines being spread throughout communities — and that can lead to the rise we're seeing now.

"Unfortunately you're seeing cases of measles in places that previously had the infection under much better control, like the United States and the United Kingdom," Bogoch said,

woman getting a vaccine. Measles, mumps and covid (Photo via Getty Images)
Vaccine rates are faltering, and there are a myriad of reasons why that may be. (Photo via Getty Images)

Should I be concerned about measles?

The good news is, despite the surge, as Bogoch told Yahoo Canada, "the vast majority of Canadians are fine" and most young kids in Canada receive their two doses of the measles vaccine before they reach school-age.

"The concern is that during the course of the pandemic, some kids may have missed a routine vaccine," Bogoch added.

In addition, the second dose of the measles vaccine was only introduced in 1996. While there were "catch-up" campaigns at the time to ensure people got their second dose, Bogoch said "there might be Canadians who are travelling abroad who think they are fully immunized to measles but they've only had one dose instead of those two doses."

That's why it's important to keep up to date on your immunization records. Measles, a contagious viral infection, can be spread through air and close contact, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). While symptoms may seem mild, including a rash, fever, cough and fatigue, measles can also lead to serious complications, like deafness, brain damage and in some extreme cases, can be fatal.

"One dose is still very, very protective," Bogoch noted, "but two doses is better, and if you're traveling to an area where there's measles circulating, you can get that extra protection by having that second dose."

Some Canadians travelling abroad may believe they're fully vaccinated against measles, but might actually only have had one dose of the vaccine. (Photo via Getty Images)
Some Canadians travelling abroad may believe they're fully vaccinated against measles, but might actually only have had one dose of the vaccine. (Photo via Getty Images)

What other vaccines should I be getting before travel?

Just which — and how many — vaccines you should get before you take flight really depends on where in the world you're travelling to, and what requirements that country may have.

"When we talk about vaccinations, we think about the three 'Rs,'" Bogoch said. "Your routine vaccines, your recommended vaccines and then some places even have required vaccines, as in, you can't go into this country without evidence showing a certain vaccination."

Regardless of where you're headed, Canadian travellers should ensure they're up to date on all of their required vaccines before leaving the country. These include shots you'd typically get when you're a child for other viral infections such as: mumps, rubella, tetanus and diphtheria. You may also want to consider getting a COVID-19 booster if you are eligible or at higher-risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.

It's also important to speak with a travel medicine specialist, who will have all the necessary info about any specific vaccines or medicine you may need for where in the world you're visiting — but this info can vary.

"That might mean vaccination, that might mean malaria pills, that might mean advice on how to avoid bug bites that can also transmit infections that may not be vaccine preventable," Bogoch noted.

What do I do if I contract something abroad?

If you do think you've picked something up while abroad, whether it's measles or another viral infection, the PHAC advised Canadians to inform flight attendants, cruise staff or border officials before entering back into the country. If you arrive home and start to feel ill, the best thing to do is what you would normally do if you were sick: See a health-care provider as soon as possible.

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