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.

Getting vaccinations

Your GP or a private travel health clinic can help arrange vaccinations for you. Vaccinations can reduce your chance of getting certain infections. If you have had a particular type of cancer or cancer treatment, some vaccinations may not be suitable for you. This may mean you will not be able to travel to some parts of the world.

Live vaccines

Live vaccines use small amounts of the live virus or bacteria. The virus or bacteria used in these types of vaccines have been changed, so they do not 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 having, or have recently had, chemotherapy or radiotherapy
  • have had an organ transplant or bone marrow transplant
  • are taking, or have recently taken, high doses of steroids or immunosuppressive medicines (drugs that weaken the immune system).

You can have live vaccines after completing immunosuppressive treatments, but you will need to speak to your cancer specialist first. You may need to get a letter from your specialist to confirm that you can have live vaccinations.

Live vaccines include:

  • MMR (measles, mumps and rubella)
  • 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 are safe after cancer treatment, but they may be less effective in people who have low immunity. If you are having chemotherapy, you should ask your cancer specialist when you should have any vaccinations. Inactivated vaccines include:

  • diphtheria, tetanus and polio
  • hepatitis A
  • hepatitis B
  • influenza
  • Japanese encephalitis
  • meningococcal meningitis
  • pneumococcal (pneumonia)
  • typhoid injection
  • tick-borne encephalitis
  • rabies.

Re-vaccination

If you have 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 are going. If you have lymphoedema in an arm, or are at risk of developing it due to breast cancer surgery or radiotherapy to an armpit, it is important to have vaccinations in the other arm.


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.


If you have had your spleen removed

If you have had your spleen removed (splenectomy), you may be more likely to get some types of infections. You will need to take low-dose antibiotics for the rest of your life. Your doctor will discuss this with you.

Before travelling, your doctor should give you a supply of antibiotics and explain when you may need to take them. They may also suggest that you get vaccinated against pneumonia and meningitis.

Malaria

Malaria is a disease spread by mosquitos. The symptoms are similar to flu and can include:

  • a high temperature
  • a headache
  • being sick.

Malaria can be especially severe if you have had your spleen removed. If possible, you should avoid travelling to areas where malaria is common. Malaria is a risk in many tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world. This includes part of sub-Saharan Africa, South America, South Asia and the Pacific region. Talk to your doctor before you arrange to go to these areas. You could also speak to a private travel health service, such as MASTA.

If you decide to travel to these areas, you should try to avoid infection using the ABCD of malaria prevention:

  • Awareness of risk – Find out how common malaria is where you are travelling. Think carefully about activities that may put you more at risk, such as hiking.
  • Bite prevention – Use insect repellents, cover your arms and legs with suitable clothing and use mosquito nets if necessary.
  • Check whether you need to take anti-malarial tablets. If you do, make sure you take the right tablets and the right amount. Anti-malaria tablets do not give you complete protection.
  • If you have symptoms, quick Diagnosis and treatment are important. Get medical help as soon as possible.

You can get more information about vaccinations and travel health from the NHS website or by contacting 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.