Let’s get (a) physical

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
-Benjamin Franklin

Let’s talk infectious diseases. My favorite! (Seriously, wasn’t kidding.) Many well-traveled folks know the drill: you’re traveling to a foreign country, so therefore you must be shot up with as many needles as humanly possible. Unless, of course, you regularly partake in acupuncture.

In our case, we are required to have a full physical examination plus recommended vaccines specific to potential risks in South Korea. Some diseases which are more prevalent in SK than the US include tuberculosis, hepatitis A, typhoid and Japanese encephalitis. Interestingly, there is also malaria in South Korea near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) but since we’re not living near the DMZ, it isn’t a big concern. And then there’s H7N9 avian (bird) flu, which is a legitimate due to both location and the upcoming winter season. I could go into annoyingly specific detail about all of these, but I’ll spare you and get to it.

Both of us needed a (seasonal) flu shot and decided to go ahead with getting a series of rabies shots as well.* J was subject to flu, tetanus, rabies AND hepatitis A in one sitting! Not to mention the 6 vials of blood they drew for standard blood counts and a tuberculosis test. PLUS he was sent home with 4 doses of the oral typhoid vaccine, each taken every other day. The photo below was quite the joke when taken a couple hours after his appointment, but proved to be accurate in the following days when the tetanus shot seemed to debilatate his entire arm. He still has 3 shots to go, too. Poor, poor J.

Having traveled quite a bit in college, I was luckier and only got two shots at each visit plus typhoid and a blood draw for TB. We both need more rabies vaccines and due to time constraints, plan to get our vaccination series for Japanese encephalitis once we are in South Korea.

We passed our phyiscal exams with flying colors, and were instructed to put together a first aid kit including the standard over the counter medications we have at home. Then comes the battle of getting prescription medications of which we need a long-term supply. Don’t even get me started – paperwork, phone calls, and more paperwork! Don’t worry, if anything, we are fully prepared for the ever lovely traveler’s diarrhea with a healthy dose of Cipro on hand. Isn’t that just what you wanted to hear? I thought so.

*I have had a lot of questions about the rabies shot, and I thought these fun facts would help people understand an uncommon vaccine (for humans, anyway):

The first rabies vaccine was developed in the early 20th century using infected rabbit brain tissue, and later sheep and goat brain tissue. This early rabies vaccine required fourteen (14!!) injections following bite exposure.

Another vaccine was developed in the mid-20th century when new vaccine development techniques were born and we began to see the modern-day vaccine. This series was fourteen to twenty-three injections (my oh my!) but was not extremely effective.

Today’s pre-exposure rabies vaccine for humans is a three shot series and feels much like a flu shot. However, it does not necessarily fully protect you from rabies if you are bitten, and you still need to seek medical attention for animal bites. On a positive note, the vaccines are not shown to cause neurological effects similar to the previously developed vaccines. Treatment methods still involve up to 5 inactive rabies injections (post-exposure prophylaxis).

Southeast Asia is known for having some of the highest rabies rates in the world, and although South Korea is at less risk than a country like India, with our dogs in tow, we felt it would be better to be safe than sorry, especially since rabies is a fatal disease.

It isn’t a bad idea for anyone to get the rabies vaccine if they are regularly around dogs or wild animals and/or traveling to Southeast Asia, but the big downfall is the expense. It costs close to $300 per dose!

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