When your Africa safari is booked and confirmed, you'll likely experience a surge of emotions, ranging from the excitement of anticipating a new adventure to the thrill of fulfilling a dream and, perhaps, a tiny tingle of anxiety about possible health concerns (often fuelled by friends or family who have never travelled to Africa).
The good news is, with sound medical advice from your doctor or travel clinic specialist plus up-to-date vaccinations and good, old-fashioned common sense, you are very unlikely to have any serious health concerns. Ironically, the riskiest part of any journey in terms of your health is likely to be the long-haul flight.
Before you leave, visit your doctor
We are Africa travel specialists but not medical experts. We recommend that all our travellers take the following precautions:
- Visit your GP in good time before departure to discuss any health issues you may have.
- If you are visiting a malaria area, chat to your doctor about the best anti-malarial prophylactics for you and be sure to tell him or her if you are going scuba diving as this may affect the type of medication prescribed.
- Try to stay as healthy and fit as you can before you depart – you don’t want to start your vacation fighting off a cold or flu (it’s worth considering a flu shot in good time before your departure).
- Stock up on enough of all your prescription drugs before you leave. Be sure to bring copies of your doctors’ scripts and keep schedule medication in its original packaging. Ask your doctor to supply the generic or alternative names for your medications in case you need seek medical attention while in Africa.
- Consider bringing spare contact lenses, asthma pumps, diabetes monitors and any particular over-the-counter medication you use regularly (such as treatment for migraines, upset stomach or allergies etc.) - it's always comforting to have the exact medicine you are used to taking, if you need it.
- Be sure to inform your African safari expert as early as possible if you require special medical attention (such as a gluten-free menu for someone with coeliac disease) or special facilities (such as a wheelchair-friendly environment).
- Ensure that all your and your children’s routine vaccinations, such as MMR (measles-mumps-rubella), polio, hepatitis and DPT (diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus), are up to date.
- In all instances, heed your doctor’s advice, even if is disappointing, like not being able to scuba dive off Africa’s Indian Ocean islands when you are pregnant (you can still snorkel in the magnificently clear, warm water, so all is not lost!).
- It is essential that you be in optimum health if you are trekking to see gorillas as they are very vulnerable to human diseases. A common human cold can kill a gorilla, so you will not be allowed to join the trek if you have even a slight symptoms of illness. Trek slots are non-refundable and non-transferrable, so look after yourself and nip even the smallest health issue in the bud.
‘The biggies’: malaria & yellow fever
The two most important diseases to take precautions against in Africa are malaria (video link) and yellow fever (video link). Both are spread by mosquitoes ONLY: you cannot contract either from coughing, physical contact, food or water – the female mosquito of the disease-carrying species MUST bite you for you to become infected.
Yellow fever is easily combatted via a simple and highly effective single vaccination, which is routinely available from a travel clinic. You must have it at least 10 days before you leave for two reasons: it takes a few days before you are effectively protected, and you may experience light flu-like symptoms, which are unpleasant on a long haul flight.
Keep your vaccination certificate with your passport to prove to authorities that require it that you have been inoculated - only an authorised travel clinic can issue these certificates.
Some countries lie in the global yellow fever belt and proof of vaccination against the disease is mandatory before you can enter other countries after you have visited ‘the belt’. Always check what your home country requires so that you can re-enter without any problems.
Will I need a yellow fever jab?
If you are travelling to countries that fall into the yellow fever zone, you may have to produce proof of vaccination if you want to then enter countries that are outside the zone – for example, if you travel from Kenya to South Africa, the South African government insists on vaccination because Kenya is in the global yellow fever belt. But if you travel from South Africa to Kenya, you will not have to produce a yellow fever vaccination certificate to enter Kenya, because South Africa does not fall in the yellow fever zone. However, please remember you will most likely always require a yellow fever certificate when you return home from a country in 'the belt'.
Please note that this list is subject to change. Always research the latest available regulations and risks before making a decision.
Malaria is one of the most common diseases in Africa and many people survive it. Like yellow fever, it is borne by the female of the disease-carrying mosquito species and thus the risk of contracting malaria is highest when mosquitos are prolific – especially during the hot and humid summer months. Fortunately, the safari high season in both East and Southern Africa is during the dry, cooler winter months when the risk drops significantly.
Although there is no vaccination against malaria, you can take an anti-malarial prophylactics and apply these common-sense steps to reduce your chances of being bitten by mosquitos:
Avoid black or dark blue clothes during the day as these colours attract mosquitos and tsetse flies.
Every morning, apply insect repellant to all exposed areas of skin and keep repellant with you to top up during the course of the day.
From dusk, cover your skin from neck to toe with light cotton trousers, long-sleeved shirts, socks and closed shoes (malarial mosquitos are most active after sunset).
Re-apply insect repellent after every shower or bath, and every time you change clothes.
Spray your room lightly with bug repellent (in most lodges, the housekeeping staff do this for you while you are at dinner and often leave complementary bug spray in your tent or room).
Keep your tent doors closed and windows’ gauze zipped up.
Use a quality citronella soap - it's not only kind to the environment and smells delicious, it also repels mosquitoes and biting flies.
Take your anti-malarial prophylactics strictly according to the schedule and let your guide or camp manager know if you are experiencing uncomfortable or unexpected side effects.
After your safari:
Stay alert to malaria symptoms for up to three months after your safari - like any illness, the sooner malaria is diagnosed and treated the better the prognosis. Seek professional medical help immediately if you experience any combination of fever, chills, headaches, night sweats, fatigue, nausea or vomiting. Be sure to tell your medical professional that you have been in a malaria area.
If you decide you don't want to travel in a malaria area, there are plenty of great safari destinations to choose from - all malaria-free: South Africa's Eastern Cape, Cape Town, Madikwe, Sun City and the Garden Route, Namibia (except the Caprivi Strip) and the Namib Desert, the Kalahari, and the tropical islands of Mauritius and the Seychelles.
Do I need to take malaria precautions?
Coming to Africa is a thrilling adventure, one you want to remember for all the right reasons. Even if you are in perfect health, it's important to chat to your doctor or travel clinic specialist about any recommended health precautions, as well as yellow fever and malaria, if they occur where you're going to travel. Be a well informed and well prepared traveller, and you'll enjoy complete peace of mind and the freedom to fully immerse yourself in your safari vacation.