It’s Not The Ebola, It’s The Water.

It’s only a few weeks until I leave for Kenya. Things are starting to come together. Today I picked up my anti-malarial pills. This is always one of the more difficult things, because there are really no good choices. I’ve always taken Meflouquine in the past because I react well to it, and also because it’s cheaper. However, the evidence is mounting that it causes long term neurological problems, and I’ve decided that there’s only so many empty chambers in the revolver before I find the one with the bullet. I unfortunately (for some things) live in the United States, and this means I pay about four times for medication what the rest of the world does. As I showed up at the pharmacy (the chemist to the rest of you), my prescription was three times what I was told it was going to be.  Furthermore they didn’t have enough, so they couldn’t even fill the whole prescription. This did me no good whatsoever. I couldn’t exactly leave Africa to have the other half of my prescription filled half way through the trip. So I called another pharmacy that had all the pills, and found a coupon online which reduced the cost to what I had originally been told. The cost of medical care and medication is out of control in this country, and I’m reduced to playing games like this. I will now be taking generic Malerone, which unfortunately seems to upset the stomach of everyone I’ve ever seen taking it. Better an upset stomach than crazy though, right?

Staying healthy though, seems to be one of the biggest anxieties for people traveling to Africa for the first time. I remember before I’d ever gone, being under the impression that Africa is so full of disease that if I went I would surely catch something that was going to kill me. After all, there’s yellow fever, ebola, malaria, dysentery, polio, schistosomiasis, aids, diphtheria, rabies, west nile virus, cholera, meningitis, hepatitis, and sleeping sickness. It’s enough pestilence and disease to make the weather channel giddy. Most of the danger is perception though, and precautions can be taken. I’ve only been sick once in Africa, and it was none of the above.  I’ve had the question a couple of times now, “are you worried about ebola?”. Frankly, no. I’ll be two thousand miles from any of that. It’s like saying, “There’s a cholera outbreak in Mexico. Aren’t you afraid to go to Canada?”

Most of these are really nothing to worry about. The really bad ones can either be avoided altogether, or prevented with immunizations.  Of everything listed above, only malaria and the diseases spread though food and water (dysentery, cholera, and hepatitis), take some conscious effort to avoid. Malaria you take medication to avoid, but it is also good to make sure you don’t get bitten by mosquitos from dusk though dawn. This involves using insect repellant and limiting exposed skin during those times. Also, an absolute must is to sleep under a mosquito net, unless you’re either in the desert where there are no mosquitoes, or at high altitude like some parts of Kenya and Ethiopia. Most of the other diseases you get from either contaminated water or food. For food, make sure your food is well cooked. Don’t eat fruit or vegetables uncooked unless they are peeled. In other words, don’t eat an unpeeled apple or tomato, and certainly don’t eat lettuce. You don’t know what they used to fertilize the crops (I’ll let you use your imagination), or who was handling the food. Water can be tricky too. Buying bottled water should be a sure bet, but there are now people taking old bottles, bottling tap or river water, and putting a new seal on it. So know the source of your water. Also, don’t order ice in your drink unless you know it was made from bottled water. I carry a Camelbak All Clear with me. It’s a bottle with an ultraviolet lamp on the top that sterilizes your water in one minute. I drank water out of the Nile for five days with it on my last trip and never got sick, so I know it works.

Food prep in Africa
Food prep in Africa

It’s really not hard to stay healthy when you’re traveling. In closing, I had an amusing conversation the other day with one of my South Sudanese friends. I put a picture up on Facebook of my brother and his son in front of a campfire from a recent camping trip. He asked essentially if we were worried about being eaten by wild animals in such a thick forest. While the thought of bears occupied a small place in the back of my mind, I really wasn’t worried about it. As I told him, as long as you don’t run, the bears don’t think you’re food.  It’s the same in Africa with illness. It occupies a small place in the back of my mind, but I know that as long as take a few precautions, there’s no reason I shouldn’t remain healthy. If I wasn’t confident in this, I wouldn’t be bringing my wife with me on my next trip.


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