camping next to a termite mound
This is the second in a series of posts intrepid traveler and novelist Pete Mandra is doing for us. In way of a little background, Pete began his writing career freelancing for various Chicagoland publications before settling in as a news reporter at the famed City News Bureau, where covering breaking crime news proved the perfect compliment to the dark sense of humor you see so fully developed in Overland. Always more of a homebody who had only left the country once for a stay in the Bahamas, Pete's world turned upside when he met his future wife, Jessica in 2000, who shared with him her infectious spirit of travel and adventure. In short order, the two left their corporate jobs, cashed in their savings and gave up their apartment to backpack around the world, including Africa, the Middle East, Alaska and Europe.
-by Pete Mandra
As a travel destination, the African continent offers much in terms of thrilling excitement, though taking certain medical precautions is an absolute must. Spotting a pride of lions stealthily creeping through the savanna grassland? Absolutely exhilarating. Needing medical attention after contracting an unusual parasite or virus? Not so much.
After participating myself in a six-week tour through Africa, I offer the following medical advice to anyone considering a similar trip through Africa, with the goal of making your experience as memorable as mine with as little health-related stress as possible. My advice is not designed to scare-- only to encourage you to use common sense. And if you happen to be the ‘paranoid’ type, the one who relies on the internet to diagnose their ever-changing ‘life threatening’ symptoms? Take a deep breath and read on. Calmly.
Prior to your trip, seek out a travel clinic for necessary vaccines. By law, you are only required to be vaccinated for Yellow Fever before entering many African countries. However, if you visit a travel clinic (usually affiliated with major hospitals), a medical practioner will review your itinerary and advise you on other potential medical risks and recommend additional vaccines when appropriate.
Malaria medication-- choose wisely. In most cases, you will be prescribed antimalarial medication, which vary greatly in terms of side-effects and dosage requirements (some, like Lariam, require taking once a week, while some, like Doxycycline, require daily dosing). Based on your medical history, you may be allowed to select your medication preference. Results vary, but my own experience with the drug Lariam made me wish I had opted for an alternative. With potential side effects of eliciting strange dreams and hallucinations, Lariam did not disappoint-- many nights I’d wake up from a sound sleep inside our tent convinced it was moving!
A water filter can be your best friend. Schistosomiasis, also known as bilharziasis, is a snail-transmitted, water-borne parasite found in sub-Saharan African fresh water (lakes and rivers) with severe consequences of infection, including bladder cancer and renal failure. So imagine my dismay, on my group tour, when the guide created a lunchtime fruit drink by dunking the empty pitcher into Namibia’s Orange River, the ideal habitat! Additionally, other parasites also exist in African fresh water that do not play very nicely with ‘Western’ immune systems.
Though filtering drinking water is a personal choice (my wife and I were the only ones on the group tour who brought one), I had peace of mind in doing so (though filtering enough water every night for the following day got old in a hurry). It’s also very hard to resist the temptation to dunk yourself in a stunning, African lake to cool off on a hot afternoon, but that, too, increases your risk.
I can’t link drinking filtered water with my staying healthy my entire six weeks in Africa, but I did learn post-trip that some of my fellow travelers ended up being treated for a variety of symptoms later on.
If you need medical attention, beware of ‘local’ cures. Lastly, in terms of medical advice, if you aren’t feeling well during your Africa adventure, be wary of any ‘cures’ offered by the locals to treat your symptoms. Though well-meaning, such ‘cures’ can lead to more issues. For example, during my group trip, a woman unable to have a ‘movement’ for several days (!) took the advice of a local man and consumed a strange root rather than seeking the immediate medical attention she should have. The result? The root made her nauseous, even more miserable, and did nothing to avoid her being air lifted to the nearest hospital to remove the intestinal blockage.
So there you have it-- some practical medical advice for your trip to Africa. It’s hard and stressful enough trekking through the rugged Africa terrain-- anything you can do from a health-related perspective will make life that much easier.