EXPLAINED: What is Austria’s ‘tick vaccine’ and should you take it?

Austrian states have already started vaccination campaigns against FSME, the tick-borne encephalitis (TBE). So what is the disease, and should you get vaccinated?

EXPLAINED: What is Austria's 'tick vaccine' and should you take it?
Ticks are common in all parts of Austria, and can carry diseases. (Photo by Alfred Kenneally on Unsplash)

Austrian states are announcing vaccination campaigns ahead of what is known as “the tick season” in the country. One of the main actions is for the so-called FSME vaccine, also known as the tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) vaccine, or “tick vaccination” (Zecken-Schutzimpfung).

But what is this disease, and do you really need to get the vaccination?

According to Professor Ursula Kunze, with the Centre for Public Health at MedUni Wien, the infection can cause a very dangerous disease, and Austria is endemic to the virus. 

“Austria is a high endemic country, the low number of cases is only due to the high vaccination rate”, she told The Local. 

Tick-borne encephalitis (TBE)

In German, the disease is known as Frühsommermeningoencephalitis, something like “early summer meningoencephalitis”.

TBE is a viral infection transmitted by the bite of infected ticks. It causes inflammation of the brain and meninges. Symptoms can develop in up to 28 days and include high fever, headache, nausea, and vomiting. The disease can progress to more severe cases.

The virus is present in Austria and other Central and Eastern Europe countries. There is also some presence in China and Japan.

There is no treatment or cure for the disease, but the symptoms can be alleviated.

READ ALSO: Seven hazards to avoid when you’re outside in Austria

How common is the virus in Austria?

Ticks carrying the TBE virus can be found in almost all continental Europe, particularly Austria. Therefore, a TBE vaccination is recommended by UK health officials for those who are moving to Austria.

The authorities also recommend the vaccination for those who are only visiting but will visit or work in forested areas – including tourists planning camping or hiking. The main affected areas, they add, are Tyrol and Upper Austria.

But “the whole country is TBEv endemic”, Prof. Kunze highlighted. “Ticks can be everywhere and the endemic regions are changing and expanding also to higher altitudes”, she explained. 

It is worth remembering that all areas with vegetation can have infected ticks, including gardens, parks, and meadows. In addition, the animals are usually more active from early spring to late autumn – which is why vaccination campaigns typically start in April.

READ ALSO: Six of the best things to do in spring in Vienna

Before the start of the major vaccination campaigns, TBE was the most common viral infectious disease with encephalitis in Austria, according to the country’s Health Ministry.

At that time, 300 to 700 cases of illness (an incidence rate of about four to nine cases per 100,000 people) occurred per year. Despite high vaccination rates of over 80 per cent, a total of 1,188 laboratory-confirmed illnesses and 20 deaths by TBE were reported in Austria from 2010 to 2020.

In 2020, the number of reported TBE cases that had become infected in Austria and were hospitalized was 216, and three people died. In 2020, 13 of the people affected were children.

The government assumes that more cases took place as more people preferred outdoor activities due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Additionally, as climate changes and winter becomes less cold, with spring temperatures arriving earlier in the year, Austria’s “tick season” is getting longer.

READ ALSO: How will climate change impact Austria?

How can I avoid getting bitten?

There are several tips to avoid getting bitten and reduce the risk of contracting TBE (and other tick-borne diseases).

Cover your skin when walking outdoors and tuck your pants into your socks to avoid exposing skin. An insect repellent on clothes and skin (with DEET products) is also very helpful. Another recommendation is to wear light-coloured clothing, which makes it easier to spot and remove ticks.

Even if you get bitten, spotting and removing the ticks quickly and safely can help prevent contamination if the animal carries any pathogens.

However, Prof. Kunze reinforces that these measures are not safe enough: “the only protection is vaccination”, she added.

What about the vaccine?

Austria applies a three-dose vaccination scheme for children and adults. The first dose should be given after the first birthday (or at any time in the case of adults). Then, depending on the vaccination, the second dose should be taken four weeks after the first one and the third one from five to nine months.

READ ALSO: Why is German-speaking Europe lagging on Covid vaccines?

Boosters should be taken every five years, according to the Vienna vaccination service.

The protective effect of the vaccines begins approximately two weeks after the second dose, and vaccination protection is almost 100%.

How can I get the vaccine?

Several states have vaccination campaigns ongoing, but the vaccine is not free. Each dose can cost up to € 26.35, and in some cases, there is a vaccination fee of € 10.65.

The vaccine can also be bought in pharmacies and administered by general practitioners – some also have the vaccine in their practice, so you don’t have to buy it.

To get the vaccination, just schedule an appointment with your doctor or a vaccination centre. You should bring your e-card (if available), a vaccination book (if available), a photo ID (such as a passport), and wear an FFP2 mask.

“Get vaccinated, regardless of your place of residence or the duration of your stay. When you get in contact with nature, there is a possible infection risk”, professor Kunze warned. 

Useful vocabulary

Impfaktion – vaccination campaign
Frühsommermeningoencephalitis (FSME) – tick-borne encephalitis (TBE)
Impfstoff – vaccination
Grundimmunisierung – basic immunisation
Impftermin – vaccination appointment

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Why getting rescued in the Austrian Alps could cost you thousands

A nice hike in the mountains that much-planned ski trip could end up costing you thousands of euros in Austria if things go wrong. Here is what you need to know.

Why getting rescued in the Austrian Alps could cost you thousands

A bright sunny day may seem like the perfect time to explore the Austrian mountains, but if you are not careful, you might have a heavy bill to pay.

This is what happened when a group of more than 100 German school children and teachers had to be rescheduled in Tyrol. The costs of airlifting and caring for most of them after the hiking trek they found online was not as easy as the website advertised could reach around €18,000.

READ ALSO: Austrian rescuers save 100 German school children stuck while hiking in the Alps

Most of it will be sent directly to the school, which presumably had its own insurance, since Austria has a strict policy when it comes to air rescues – even if you have public mandatory health insurance, such as ÖGK.

Air rescue in Austria

A very significant exception to what the public insurance, such as the Österreichische Gesundheitskasse (ÖGK) covers in Austria are air rescue.

The ÖGK does state it will pay the costs of domestic transport by aircraft if the patient is in danger of death, and the urgency calls for air transport – as long as the medical necessity is proven by a doctor and recognised by the company.

However, the insurance highlights that this does not include “accidents in the practice of sport and tourism on the mountain” – a not-so-rare occurrence in an Alpine country.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Am I liable for ambulance costs in Austria?

This means that if you suffer an accident in the streets of Vienna and need to be airlifted to a hospital, ÖGK will likely cover that bill. But if you have the exact same accident while biking on a mountain, your home address will be printed on that bill.

On its website, ÖGK reiterates that it “recommends taking appropriate precautions. Otherwise, an emergency can quickly become a big financial problem”.

The “appropriate precautions”, according to expert lawyers, would include buying private insurance  – or checking the terms of any insurance policies you already have.

How expensive can it get?

It is very difficult to assess costs because it depends on each situation and how long the services are needed.

In the case of the 99 students and their teachers, the € 18,000 included three flight hours of the police helicopter, one and a half hours of the emergency helicopter, and the “ground presence of the mountain rescuers”, Kurier reported citing specialist estimates.

READ ALSO: Everything foreigners need to know about the Austrian healthcare system

One story shows that even in case of false alarms, people can be left with hefty bills.

When worried residents saw flashlights high in the Tyrolean Alps they presumed they were emergency calls for help and called out emergency services.

As a result, a couple that was quietly camping in the mountains were surprised when mountain rescue workers turned up.

They were even more shocked to learn they had to pay a bill of more than € 2,000.

“Rescue operations must always be paid by the persons in the supposed emergency, even if they are actually not needed”, Viktoria Haider, an insurance consultant, told ORF.

On average, helicopter rescues cost around €3,500, according to a Kurier report. However, this can increase significantly for complex assignments.

What should you do to avoid high costs?

Whenever travelling, even inside Austria, primarily if you practise winter sports or plan to go for hikes, it is worth considering getting personal insurance with air rescue coverage.

Air rescue, as the case with the children shows, doesn’t extend only to physical accidents but may be necessary if you get lost or thought missing, for example.

Costs for helicopter rescues could add up to thousands of euros. Austria’s compulsory insurance schemes such as ÖGK and SVS will not cover in most cases.

In some cases, home insurers and even credit card insurances can cover travel and health expenses. However, it is still important to check – rather than assume – if this includes air rescue and under which circumstances.

If you are a frequent visitor of the Alps, it might be worth checking associations such as the Austrian Alpine Association, the Austrian Ski Association (ÖSV) or the ÖAMTC, with yearly membership fees that include insurance.