You might think that getting too close to a lion is the only worry you’ll have on an African safari, but there are plenty of hidden health dangers to look out for, says Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth
When planning an African safari, it’s worth thinking about your health needs in advance. Even the seasons (which vary across the continent) can affect how you protect yourself. For example, Southern Africa is dry and relatively cold from April to October, when there are fewer mosquitoes and the malaria risk is lower. Whereas in the east the biting season is at its highest between April and June.
Risk can even vary within countries. Although South Africa is largely malaria free, its Kruger NP isn‘t, and visitors to nearly every African game park will need to take antimalarial tablets. But malaria prevention is more than just swallowing pills.
It is important to bring the right clothing. Coveralls – especially if proofed with a contact insecticide such as Lifesystems’ EX4 – will help reduce bites, acacia scratches and sunburn. Clothes also need to blend in (avoid white and red) so as not to alert the wildlife, and remember that blue attracts tsetse flies.
Stout footwear also helps to protect you, as well as reducing the chances of turning an ankle when on walking safaris at the ends of the day in poor light. Bush hats are good for keeping the sun off your face and out of your eyes, and can prevent ear-tops and the backs of necks from burning – two sites where skin cancers are common.
Clearly Africa boasts a huge range of wildlife that is willing and able to harm an unwary human, but it is important to be aware that nearly all animals are able to defend themselves.
A ranger once told me the story of a 50cm-tall klipspringer antelope that found its way into a fenced camp in Kruger NP, whereupon one visitor told his daughter to go close so that he could photograph them. The little buck felt cornered and, in leaping past the man, slashed his thigh with its tiny horns. The laceration needed two dozen stitches in the local hospital.
Park guides know their wildlife and understand what spooks which species. Chit-chat and ignoring warnings not only mean seeing less but can put a whole group in danger.
Close contact with wildlife can carry a rabies risk. Vervet monkeys often raid picnic tables, and it’s not worth risking a scratch to fight them for a sandwich. Bats, too, are a threat as they hunt the bugs drawn to camp lights and can get discombobulated.
One very sad report from 2007 involved a woman scratched on the face by a bat while she was washing one evening in Tsavo West National Park in Kenya. Having cleaned the wound, park wardens and personnel at the nearby health facility assured her that, locally, rabies was only known to be carried by dogs and cats. Consequently, she did not go for her rabies shots. Symptoms began 23 days later and she died in a hospital in the Netherlands 45 days after the scratch.
Recommended post-bite/scratch wound care involves scrubbing under running water with plenty of soap for five minutes, then flooding it with alcohol and seeking the correct jabs.
A trip to an African game park requires some precautions, including wearing long, loose clothing (ideally proofed with EX4), DEET-based repellent and the consumption of doxycycline, mefloquine or Malarone antimalarials. It isn’t vital to have pre-safari rabies jabs, but it is crucial to visit a good clinic if bitten. The Dutch woman cited would have survived if she had gone for post-bite jabs on reaching home nine days after the scratch (14 days before symptoms began).
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