Vaccinations and immunisations

Vaccinations help reduce your chances of getting infections on holiday. The types you need depend on your destination.

Vaccines are either:

  • live – containing tiny amounts of live virus or bacteria
  • inactivated.

If you have a weak immune system, you should not have live vaccines. This may be the case if you’ve recently had chemotherapy, radiotherapy or are taking immunosuppressive treatment. Inactivated vaccines aren’t dangerous and are safe after cancer treatment. But they may be less effective in people who have low immunity.

If you’ve had high-dose chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, you may have lost your immunity to certain diseases. You may need to be re-vaccinated after your treatment has ended.

If you have cancer that affects your spleen, you may be more likely to get some types of infection. Pneumonia and meningitis vaccinations are recommended and, where possible, avoid travelling to areas where malaria is common.

Ask your cancer specialist for advice on the vaccinations you need, and the best time to have them.

How cancer can affect vaccinations

Vaccinations can reduce your chance of getting certain infections. If you’ve had a particular type of cancer or cancer treatment, you may not be able to have some of the vaccinations you need to travel to some parts of the world. This may affect your choice of holiday location.


Live vaccines

Live vaccines use tiny amounts of the live virus or bacteria. The virus or bacteria used in these types of vaccines have been changed so they don’t cause the infection. The vaccines encourage the immune system to develop white blood cells (antibodies) to protect against the infection. If you have a weak immune system, you should not have live vaccines. Your immune system may be weakened if you:

  • are currently having or have recently had chemotherapy, or radiotherapy
  • have had a solid organ transplant or bone marrow transplant
  • are taking immunosuppressive treatment.

Your immune system can also be weakened by high doses of steroids or immunosuppressive drugs that are used to treat certain autoimmune diseases. Live vaccines can be given after completing immunosuppressive treatments, but you will need to speak to your cancer specialist first. You may need to have a letter from your specialist to confirm that you are able to have live vaccinations.

Vaccinations given as live vaccines include:

  • BCG (tuberculosis)
  • MMR (measles, mumps and rubella)
  • oral polio (not currently given in the UK)
  • oral typhoid
  • yellow fever.

Some people may need to avoid live vaccines for the rest of their lives. This includes people who have had a lymphoma or leukaemia, or if their cancer is related to HIV infection.


Inactivated vaccines

Inactivated vaccines aren’t dangerous and are safe after cancer treatment. But they may be less effective in people who have low immunity. If you are receiving chemotherapy treatment you should discuss with your cancer specialist when would be the best time to have the vaccination. Inactivated vaccines include:

  • cholera
  • diphtheria, tetanus and polio
  • haemophilus influenza B (Hib)
  • hepatitis A
  • hepatitis B
  • influenza
  • Japanese encephalitis
  • meningococcal meningitis
  • pertussis (whooping cough)
  • pneumococcal
  • typhoid injection
  • tick-borne encephalitis
  • rabies


Re-vaccination

If you’ve had high-dose chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant, you may not be immune to diseases you were previously vaccinated against. You may need to be re-vaccinated after your treatment has ended.

The vaccinations you may need for your holiday will depend on where you’re going. If you have lymphoedema in an arm, or are at risk of developing lymphoedema in an arm due to breast cancer surgery or radiotherapy to an armpit, it’s important to make sure you have vaccinations in the other arm.


Splenectomy

If you have cancer that affects your spleen, you may have had your spleen removed (this is called a splenectomy). You may be more likely to get some types of infection. Pneumonia and meningitis vaccinations are recommended. Before travelling, your doctor should give you a supply of antibiotics and tell you when to take them. Malaria can be especially severe if you have had your spleen removed. In this case, where possible, you should avoid travelling to areas where malaria is common. Malaria is a risk in many tropical and sub-tropical part of the world. This includes part of Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, South Asia and the Pacific region.

If travel is essential, you should make every effort to avoid infection, using the ABCD of malaria prevention:

  • Awareness of risk
  • Bite Prevention
  • Chemoprophylaxis (anti-malarial tablets)
  • prompt Diagnosis and treatment.

It is important to use insect repellent (DEET – diethyl-m-tolumide based repellents are recommended), wear suitable clothing, and if appropriate use mosquito nets to reduce the risk. No anti-malarial tablets provide 100% protection.

The NHS have more information about vaccinations, or contact MASTA.


Back to Travelling abroad

Getting healthcare abroad

The treatment you’re entitled to abroad will depend on whether the country has a healthcare agreement with the UK.

Taking medicines abroad

If you’re taking medicines abroad, always check for rules and restrictions in your destination country.

Going abroad for NHS-funded treatment

If you’re thinking about going abroad for NHS-funded treatment, speak to your local health commissioner.