Professor Martin Gore, a leading UK cancer scientist, died on January 10th, reportedly as a result of a Yellow Fever vaccination he had received.
Unfortunately, all vaccinations may have life-threatening side effects. Severe allergic reactions/death can rarely occur after all shots. In our NYC travel vaccination clinic, we review these risks verbally and with VIS’s (Vaccine Information Statements).
The issue with the Yellow Fever vaccine, in particular, is that:
A) It can also cause severe neurologic and multi-organ side-effects (in addition to allergic reactions).
B) The actual risk of getting yellow fever disease during travel is not always easy to determine and is sometimes not much higher than the risk of the vaccination.
The Disease: Yellow Fever is a potentially life-threatening mosquito-borne viral illness. An estimated 15% of people infected with Yellow Fever will develop severe illness and up to about half of those people die of complications. The vaccination is nearly 100% effective at protecting against the disease.
The Risk of Getting the Disease: Generally, in West Africa, 50 per 100,000 travelers having a 2-week stay will develop severe illness and, for South America, it is 5 per 100,000. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). The risk varies significantly, though, with specific location, length of trip, activities during trip, and whether or not there is an outbreak of the disease.
The Risk of the Shot: The risk of the severe/life-threatening side effects from the vaccine are approximately 1.1 per 100,000 people vaccinated for age under 60 and 3.4 per 100,000 in ≥60 (Centers For Disease Control and Prevention).
So, if the risk of the disease is very low (for instance, traveling to a country in S. America for a few days where Yellow Fever is present at low levels), the risk of the vaccine is close to the risk of getting the disease, particularly if a traveler is older.
Other factors that need to be taken under consideration: a traveler’s health, what medications they take (immune suppressants), and whether or not the Yellow Fever vaccination is REQUIRED for the trip (as opposed to RECOMMENDED…I will address this subject in a later post).
Bottom line: The Yellow Fever shot, and all other vaccinations, carry risk. Thoroughly reviewing what is needed on your trip with a Travel Health Care Professional will not eliminate that risk, but it will help insure you are getting only the shots you need. As with Yellow Fever in particular, the decision to vaccinate for travel is not as simple as it may sometimes seem.