African Safari Health Tips

African Safari Health Tips

by Mark Alberhasky, January 21, 2016


I know everyone is super excited about the upcoming trip to Tanzania and rightly so. We’ve been sharing recommendations about equipment and travel but have yet to touch on some of the less sexy but very practical aspects of going on safari: health and wellness recommendations. As a physician you can understand that I consider this a very important aspect of planning travel to an exotic destination. While I’m not taking on the role of caregiver for Tanzania Mentor Series trekkers I do want to discuss in broad terms some issues worthy of your consideration. I’m also going to share some of the trip lists I use on my own safaris that participants find useful in packing and planning.

The most important health consideration when visiting a third world country such as Africa is avoiding infectious disease. With a few simple guidelines and minimal pharmaceutical preparation, you can embark on a journey into the African bush and have a relatively care free adventure. I’ve been multiple times over the years and all who’ve traveled with me have done well. To date I’m unaware of any bringing back medical complications. That’s a track record I’d like to keep so let’s jump in.

First something you don’t need to worry about, though you might find the topic listed if you Google health topics for this region of the world. Yellow Fever vaccination will be mentioned. What’s not often clear is that Yellow Fever is not found where we’re going and the vaccination that’s being discussed is to protect locals, not protect you! It is thus required when other Africans are coming as visitors from places where Yellow Fever exists. It is not required for travelers from the US since we wouldn’t potentially be bringing Yellow Fever. That was easy!

If you were to visit an infectious disease specialist, something I think is very appropriate before travel to Africa (or anywhere in the world frankly) they would likely recommend vaccination updates or boosters for some common things and also primary vaccination for others. It just makes sense for example, to know that your tetanus immunity is current. A polio booster may also be advised.

One of the more common diseases for which world travelers should all be vaccinated is hepatitis. Hepatitis A is quite infectious and vaccination is simple. Hepatitis B, more often associated with blood transfusion, is also a simple vaccination but is administered in three injections over a three month period. I’m writing this now so that anyone interested has time to begin and complete their hepatitis vaccination schedule.

The 900 lb gorilla-in-the-room (for most people) when traveling to Africa is malaria. The mere mention of the word may give you pause but it is nothing that need be feared with common sense and easily available medical precaution. Malaria is endemic in Tanzania (meaning that it is always there) but the risk is only moderate. We are going during a drier part of the year which also somewhat lessens the risk since conditions aren’t as favorable for mosquitos. Prevention is the keyword and a two-limbed approach will all but eliminate any risk for the smart traveler. The easiest preventative measure is clothing that covers: long sleeved shirts and long pants (the lightweight kind for warm climates). I recommend purchasing an anti-malarial spray for treating your clothes that can be purchased at outdoor stores such as REI. The active ingredient in the spray remains functional through a number of washings so one application protects you the entire trip. One large spray bottle will treat several shirts, pants and a hat. These types of clothing also protect you from the sun and minimize the amount of sunscreen your need to wear, a nice plus. All the accommodations I ever used on safari in East Africa provide netting over your bed, limiting access to things that fly in the night. They make your tent look quite adventurous and really do work. These are all the easy ways to avoid pesky mosquitos. The second limb of malarial prevention is drug prophylaxis (meaning a drug you take to prevent infection should you be bitten by a malaria carrying mosquito). Malarone is the most commonly prescribed treatment used for prophylaxis today. You take your first pill the day before you leave, take one each day while in country and then take one a day for the first week back home to complete the protection. You take the drug even after leaving Africa because malaria contracted on the last day of a trip would need those seven days of treatment to ensure infection does not take hold. Just think of it as your one-a-day vitamin against a nasty infection. The irony is that you won’t see a lot of mosquitos this time of year, but malaria is not to be taken lightly. We’re not talking about catching a cold here so I strongly encourage you to talk with your doctor and use malarial prophylaxis.

Some of you may have heard of a new anti-malarial that is only taken once a week: Lariam. While once-a-week instead of once-a-day sounds attractive, lariam has been associated with many reports of drug induced psychosis and severe hallucinations. From what I’ve read and what my colleagues tell me, lariam is to be avoided.

Enough with the serious. Now let’s just finish with the practical. You’re going where there are no drugstores. BRING ANYTHING YOU KNOW YOU’LL NEED. All your routine medications AND some you might need just in case. When you see your doctor explain your travel plans and ask for anti-diarrheal medication and a general purpose antibiotic. Your anti-diarrheal medication should include both a full course of Cipro and immodium. Cipro is for if you acquire bacterial diarrhea and immodium for simpler non-bacterial diarrhea. I will tell you the easiest way to avoid diarrhea: take one pepto-bismol tablet a day. I’ve never had travel diarrhea even when those around me have because having that small amount of pepto-bismol in my GI tract is protective. End of story… a story you’d really like to avoid on safari!

Browse over the checklist PDFs and you’re bound to see items you might not think of bringing that totally make sense now that you understand you want to be safe and need to be somewhat self sufficient.

One other aside and I take off my white coat… There are potentially bad guys in the dirt in Africa. Some of them can penetrate intact skin, so it’s not a good idea to wear flip-flops or open shoes without socks. BUT throwing a pair of flip flops to wear in the shower keeps you off the floor which helps prevent picking up a foot fungus. The last tip about footwear has nothing to do with medicine. When we’re in the safari vehicles we will be standing on the seats much of the day. You’d be stunned to know how expensive these custom safari vehicles are in Africa, so the drivers try to take really good care of them which means making the upholstery last as long as possible. That means you should take off your shoes every time you climb aboard, standing on the seats only in socks. You don’t need hiking boots on a trip like this but a shoe you can easily slip on and off makes repeated entry and exit during game drives that much easier!

Sorry for the length but there’s a lot that goes into making a GREAT safari experience.


Mark Alberhasky is a Nikon Mentor for the Mentor Series Worldwide Photo Treks,

and leads destination photo tours for PhotoZoneTours.com.

Join him as he travels and share his enthusiasm for photography and learning