Vaccinating for Kenya

My grandkids and I share a similarity of late: we’ve all been getting shots. In their case, the vaccinations are the usual battery of childhood immunizations while I get to play with the more exotic ones as a reward to traveling to Kenya.

I need HOW many shots!?  Photo Courtesy of George Hodan

I need HOW many shots!?

Photo Courtesy of George Hodan

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations form an impressively long list of diseases to guard against in Kenya. None are strictly mandatory for travel to the nation (the exception is yellow fever if you are coming from an area where it is prevalent, which the United States is not), but most are recommended.

The CDC presumes that you’ve had all the normal childhood immunizations. If you haven’t, add them to the list. I’m not going to take time to go over them except for the ones that I needed boosters for.

The List:

Yellow Fever – a viral disease, yellow fever kills about 30,000 people per year, mostly in Africa. It’s spread by mosquitos, and once the disease starts, there are no effective treatment options except to let it run its course. The disease runs through a primary course of symptoms that read like flu: headaches, fever, chill, muscle weakness, nausea, and vomiting. The second phase, affecting about 15 percent of cases involves liver damage, bleeding from the eyes and mouth, as well as vomiting blood. Some 20 percent of these cases result in death. I opted to get the vaccine. Not required, but it seems prudent.

Hepatitis A  – Hep A and B are strongly recommended. I love the comment I came across on one site – “If you are an adventurous eater . . . “ Seriously, I am not traveling all the way to Eldoret to eat at McDonald’s. Most of the time, I will be eating locally. Hep A covers the food and water issues. I’ll take my chances with the food. Andrea Kaitany with Simbolei Academy has already sent information on where to get drinking water along with a ton of other great advice and Justin Lagat will be helping to keep me out of trouble, too.

Hepatitis B - The CDC recommends Hep B if you might have sex with a new partner, get a tattoo or piercing, or have any medical procedures. Nope on the new partner (still in love with the one I got), and I don’t believe in self-mutilation, so that covers the first two. The third one, medical procedures, isn’t planned, nor is any activity that involves contact with someone else’s blood. OF course, getting mauled by a lion isn’t on the agenda, either. I got the Hep B as insurance, just in case things go bad.

Typhoid – Another viral disease, typhoid kills about 160,000 people per year worldwide. For folks in the United States, don’t get too complacent. Four hundred cases per year are reported here, with the CDC estimating that there are about 6,000 cases annually. With proper treatment, the survival rates are very high. I would rather not test the proposition, so I followed the recommendations.

Diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis – I flung these together because the same TDAP vaccine covers them all. For adults who travel to Kenya, the CDC recommends getting this if you haven’t had a booster since childhood. Count me in that group.

Polio – Thanks to Jonas Salk, the idea of an outbreak of polio in the United States seems farfetched. Still, such an outbreak did occur in Kenya in 2013, likely a result of a fatwa in Nigeria which declared the polio vaccine an evil American plot to sterilize the true believers of Allah. If weren’t for the negative impact on herd immunity, I’d let the chuckleheads live (or not) with their decision. I got the booster.

Meningitis – The Kenyans in the North live smack-dab in the middle of the meningitis belt of sub-Saharan Africa. The CDC recommends getting this if you’re planning on being in the country during the dry season, December to June. Better safe than sorry.

Rabies – One of the few vaccines that opted out on, rabies is prevalent in most undeveloped countries. I’m figuring that if I get bit by a rabid rhino, I’m going to need other attention and will get the post-exposure vaccine. Interestingly enough, if you have the pre-exposure vaccine, you still need the post-exposure shots if infected.

Malaria – If, as Ben Franklin famously didn’t say, beer is proof that God loves us, I want to know what’s up with mosquitos. It’s not just malaria. They also carry yellow fever, encephalitis, dengue fever, and Rift Valley fever. Probably more, but that’s a goodly list to worry about. There are several medications available to guard against malaria, taken orally. Because it is located above 2500 meters, Nairobi isn’t considered a risk area. At 2400m, Iten is. I’ll be taking the meds because I don’t know all the places that I’ll be going. It is quite possible that I will be in malaria-prone zones.  Two options exist (different areas need different medications), Malarone and Doxycycline. I’m opting for the Malarone. Doxycycline can lead to increased sensitivity to sunlight and sunburns.

Optional Medications

Much of Kenya and the Great Rift Valley is above 7,000 feet. Iten is at 7,900’ (2400m as previously mentioned.) If you are prone to altitude sickness, consider getting a prescription for it. Fortunately for me, I’ve camped, run, and stayed with friends above that altitude without issues (except I run even slower.)

One of the items that the doctor recommended for me was medicine for traveler’s diarrhea. I declined these. If it becomes a problem, I’ll take care of it there. Your comfort level might be different and it’s something to consider, especially if you only have a short visit planned.

The Cost of Travel Vaccines

The good news is that the shots, for the most part, don’t hurt. Not so the cost of getting the shots.

Most healthcare plans in the United States do not cover the cost of travel vaccines, considering them to be an elective process. The best review of costs that I found was here. Remember that the figures for malaria meds need to be adjusted for your actual time in-country. In my case, they’re going to run to about $350. This is one that I want to see if the in-country costs might be lower.

I strongly advise shopping around for your providers. I ended up getting my yellow fever vaccine at the local health district while getting the rest at the Safeway Travel Pharmacy in Pullman.

If you’re budgeting for the trip, plan on $1,000 for the base course of vaccinations and another $200 per month of travel for the malaria medications. It sounds expensive, and to a degree is, but if you’re planning a trip you’ll remember forever, the shots are worth it. Let’s remember the trip for all the right reasons.