Do Travelers Need the H1N1 Vaccine?

Most people who are not living in a cave have heard about the H1N1 virus (formerly known as swine flu). This strain of influenza exists throughout the world and has been classified as a pandemic. The H1N1 virus is an important issue for international travelers. Travel doctors have been following international trends of H1N1 infections closely, so they can advise their travelers if this vaccine is necessary.

Should international travelers receive an H1N1 vaccine? Does the regular, or seasonal flu shot, protect against H1N1?

Flu Background

The cause of the common “seasonal” flu is viruses. There are literally hundreds of strains of influenza that can cause seasonal flu, which typically strikes us each winter. The seasonal flu is the common ‘flu’ and is often known as a ‘cold’. The symptoms include runny nose, fever, chills, cough and muscle aches.

These strains of seasonal influenza have similar genetic make-up that changes slightly as the viruses migrate during flu season. In contrast, H1N1 influenza is a specific type of influenza that is genetically different from other influenza strains. This is why the regular ‘flu shot’ won’t protect against H1N1 disease.

Flu Vaccine Background

There are two flu vaccines available now. The first is the seasonal influenza vaccine, or ‘flu shot’ against the common strains of ‘flu’. The second is the H1N1 vaccine that specifically targets the H1N1 virus, but has little or no effect on seasonal flu. Unfortunately, receiving one vaccine does little to protect against the other virus. This is why physicians often recommend both vaccines to many patients.

You should consult with a travel doctor several weeks before departure. Your physician will review specific details about you and your itinerary and will advise you if the H1N1 vaccine should be administered. Of course, there may be many other travel vaccinations that are also recommended.

Whether you’re traveling abroad or staying stateside, talk to your doctor about these important vaccines to keep you healthy. As a physician, I can guarantee that it’s much better to get flu shots than it is to get the flu.

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