Traveling With Lupus in Yellow Fever High-Risk Areas

A few months ago I received an email from a reader who has lupus and wants to travel South America but cannot receive the Yellow Fever vaccine. I responded to them amid my hectic travel schedule, but felt like I needed to expand more and thought this would be super important to share, in case more of you would like to know (because I initially had no idea either!)

If you don't know, Yellow Fever is a (deadly) viral disease spread by mosquitos and is most often found in tropical South American and Sub-Sahara African areas.

Unfortunately, the vaccine isn't recommended for individuals with compromised immune systems, so autoimmune disease carriers are generally unable to receive preventative treatment. 

Here are the areas at risk for Yellow Fever in South America:

Photo Credit: CDC.GOV

Here are the countries at risk, with the asterisks indicating that there is only risk in certain areas of that country:

  • Argentina*

  • Bolivia*

  • Brazil*

  • Colombia*

  • Ecuador*

  • French Guiana

  • Guyana

  • Panama*

  • Paraguay

  • Peru*

  • Suriname

  • Trinidad and Tobago*

  • Venezuela*

You all know I went to South America, so what was my deal?

Truth is, I actually got the Yellow Fever vaccine, so it is possible for you to receive it if you have an autoimmune disease. For the past two or three years, I've been really good (and lucky) with controlling my lupus and my blood tests have consistently shown good numbers across the board.

To get my lupus in shape, I completed 6 months of chemotherapy in 2004, 3 years of post-therapy treatments from 2005 - 2008, and have since taken Plaquenil to control the lupus for the past 10 years (as of 2015). Making sure I remember to take my medicine and keeping stress-free has been crucial to keeping the disease in somewhat of a remission.

When it was time to go to South America, I consulted with my lupus doctor and a travel vaccine specialist and they both agreed my lupus had been stable enough to move forward with a vaccine. The shot was painful and I was sick for about a week afterward with cold symptoms and extreme fatigue. After that, I was good as new and covered for the next 10 years.

I know this doesn't help those who can't get it at all, but it should provide some hope. At one point in my life, my lupus was flaring up so often that I couldn't even go outside. Now I am being approved for Yellow Fever vaccines. There wasn't a doubt in my doctors' minds that I would be just fine taking it (okay, maybe like 10% doubt) so their confidence made me feel good and their experience, expertise, and clear communication made me feel secure with the decision.

That said, I am still smart about the locations I go to, as I do not take malaria pills -- which is another big risk in these areas. So I mostly avoid jungle areas and did not go to the Amazon when in South America.

Sucks? Yes. But there are worse things. 

If you further research the areas you want to visit (the CDC is super helpful), you'll find there are plenty of countries you can explore without having a Yellow Fever vaccination. On my last trip, I visited Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia and only Bolivia asked to even see my Yellow Fever vaccination sticker/immunization card at the border. I stuck to high elevation destinations, small towns and large cities, and low-risk areas and had an amazing time. 

I hope this helps! Keep exploring.