China vaccines for the health conscious traveler
Take it seriously
Traveling to China for a short holiday is very different than staying there for a year or so for an internship or new teaching job, so getting your vaccines is sometimes necessary. Some parts of China are at higher risk than others for certain diseases. This article will help you to understand the situation more clearly, and then, with the aid of your physician, you can decide which vaccinations you would like to have. There are no vaccinations that, by law, you are required to have when visiting China, irrespective of how long you are staying.
The following vaccines are recommended to be current before traveling to China
- Influenza is one of the least glamorous vaccines, but the most likely vaccine-preventable illness you will be exposed to.
- Pneumonia (P23) If you smoke, have asthma, other chronic conditions or are over 65, talk to your doctor about getting the pneumonia vaccine.
- Tetanus-diphtheria (DPT) Has it been ten or more years since your last tetanus injection? Are you pregnant? Are you often around children? If your answer to one, two or even three of these questions is yes, you should be immunized against tetanus-diphtheria.
- Measles/Mumps/Rubella (MMR) Many adults have not had two MMR vaccines in their lives. At the time they were growing up, only one was recommended. Get your second (and last one) before you travel, since measles is common worldwide.
- Varicella (chickenpox) The vaccine or having had it already provides adequate protection. Chickenpox is very common worldwide, so if you are not protected, you may have an unpleasant surprise – a case of chickenpox.
- Hepatitis A is recommended for all travelers over 12 months old. It is a common illness that is spread through poor hand washing and food. You will need two doses six months apart for full protection. If you don’t have enough time for two, one dose generally works well enough. Or if you are getting the Hepatitis B vaccine too, there is an accelerated schedule of Twinrix (combination Hepatitis A+B vaccine) which can provide protection in as little as 21 days.
- Hepatitis B is very common in China. Immunization is recommended for everyone, especially if you will be making multiple trips or have an extended stay. Hepatitis B is spread through body fluids. If you needed health care (stitches etc.), have a new sexual partner, share needles or get a new tattoo, then you are at risk of contracting Hepatitis B. Get protected. In some cases, the disease can progress to severe illness and liver cancer. It takes three doses over six months for full protection. However, an accelerated schedule of Twinrix can be given over 21 days.
- Typhoid is recommended if you’ll be in rural areas, where you may come in contact with contaminated water or food. If you are eating at places off the usual tourist itinerary, are participating in home-stay, or are an adventurous eater, get protected. Also get the typhoid vaccine if you are making multiple trips.
- The polio vaccine is recommended if you are traveling to Xinjiang province, which is as far west as you can go in China. This is not typically recommended for visits to just the east coast.
Your physician may have you consider the following vaccines if your stay in China is longer than two weeks.
- Yellow Fever is required by Chinese law, only if you are arriving from an infected area such as Africa.
- Japanese Encephalitis is recommended for long-term visitors/residents as it is very common throughout China. It is particularly recommended if you are visiting rural areas.
- Rabies is recommended for any traveler who may come in contact with or handle animals, especially dogs. Rabies is common in China, while the vaccination is not, but again it is not typically recommended if you only plan to visit large cities. But all animal bites are potentially rabid.
China is not the West
It is important to understand that visiting a country is going into an environment that your body isn’t used to, particularly a country like China which is so different from western countries in many respects. A country like China has always been largely isolated from the West. They haven’t had access to western medicine for that long, even medication such as penicillin, which westerners take for granted. The immune systems of Chinese people are very different from the immune systems of Westerners. Germs are different and diseases have developed there that are intrinsically different from what the vast majority of Westerners have encountered.
Hygiene can save your life
You will need to be aware that practices that are considered everyday practices in western countries are not to be seen in the same way in China. You should certainly be careful when it comes to drinking water. You should only drink bottled or boiled water. Even when brushing your teeth, or shaving use bottled or boiled water. Wash your hands regularly, this is your first defense and often the best. You’ll be touching and holding things covered with germs you aren’t used to. This is one occasion when you don’t follow the maxim: when in China do as the Chinese do. On the contrary, on this occasion, it should be: when in China do as the Westerner does.