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General Health Information - Diseases | Malaria | Yellow Fever


One of the biggest concerns many travellers have when visiting Africa is the prevalence of various diseases that are common to the developing countries of the continent. While it is important for travellers to be aware of the health risks that they may be exposed to, if you are careful then there is very little to worry about.

Cholera

Many people are familiar with cholera. The recent outbreaks in Zimbabwe have people understandably worried about the effect and prevalence of this disease on their trips to Africa. However, if you are careful and practice good hygiene then there is no reason to worry about cholera.

Cholera is caused by bacteria, Vibrio cholerae. These bacteria make their way into the small intestine of the human body where they releases a toxin that causes the disease. The most prevalent symptom is severe diarrhoea often characterised as a pale, watery stool called 'rice stool'. Death is caused not by the bacteria's toxin but rather because of the severe dehydration of the sufferer.

The disease is spread through contact with contaminated food and water – not through contact with sufferers of the disease. Symptoms include the severe diarrhoea, abdominal cramps and nausea. In some cases there may be vomiting and high fever.

Prevention is the best approach. Avoid eating raw food or undercooked food – especially vegetables and fish – and do not drink unsterilised water. Most lodges, hotels and camps, will take care of these precautions, but it is always a good idea to ask.

If you suspect that you or someone else may be infected with cholera it is important to get them medical attention as soon as possible. Symptoms usually take 24 to 72 hours to appear but after that period death can come quickly from severe dehydration that can lead to lowered blood pressure and kidney failure.

The disease can be easily treated with a combination of antibiotics to battle the bacteria and oral rehydration therapy to ensure that the suffer does not dehydrate.

Hepatitis

A viral infection of the liver, hepatitis is present in many countries around the world. For the traveller into Africa, there are two strains of hepatitis that you need to be concerned with: hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

Both strains have the same general features and include fever, abdominal pains, nausea and jaundice. The virus attacks the liver, infecting and destroying the liver cells. The virus is all but immune to most antibiotics and many people who are infected have to live with the the virus for the rest of their lives.

Hepatitis A is most often contracted through contaminated food and water.It is not usually fatal, but it is a debilitating disease. Hepatitis B is contracted through body fluids and intimate contact. If left untreated, hepatitis B is often fatal.

There are effective vaccines against both strains to protect you against the diseases.

Poliomyelitis

More commonly know as polio, this disease has all but been eradicated in most developed countries, but it still exists in some developing African countries. The viral infection is known for the debilitating and paralysing effect that it has on those that contract the illness.

The virus is spread through contaminated food and water and close contact with infected individuals. Two highly effective vaccines are available that ensure immunity to the virus and they are readily available from various physicians.

If you are travelling into an area where polio is still a problem, then it is recommended that you ensure that you are immunised against polio – especially if you have young children travelling with you.

Rabies

Globally, this is not an uncommon disease. When visiting Africa, especially on a safari adventure, however, your chances of being exposed to rabies is a little higher than normal.

Rabies is caused by a virus that can infect any mammal. Even if an animal shows no signs of the disease, it may still be a carrier. Contrary to popular belief, rabies can be contracted in ways other than being bitten by an infected animal. Touching or being licked by an infected animal could both cause the disease to spread.

The virus attacks the central nervous system and once it has taken hold there is very little that can be done to help the suffer. Symptoms include muscle spasms, headaches, delirium; and the characteristic hydrophobia where the sufferer is unable to swallow liquids because of the paralysis of the throat muscles. Death is usually because of respiratory failure due to paralysis.

Vaccines are available that work effectively against rabies and it is suggested that you get your immunisation updated before you go. If you are bitten by an animal while on your trip or you suspect you may have come into contact with the virus, you must go to a clinic to have the a post-infection vaccination administered.

Tuberculosis

Africa has a high incidence of tuberculosis (TB). Many people suffer from this debilitating respiratory disease and if you are going to be spending a large amount of time in a country where the disease is a problem, there is a chance that you may contract it.

TB is a deadly infectious disease that is caused by myobacteria. It usually affects the pulmonary system (the lungs) but can also affect the central nervous system, the lymphatic system and other parts of the human body as well. The disease is spread through the air when infected people cough, sneeze or spit. Many people are asymptomatic carriers of the disease and they never develop any signs.

The symptoms of TB are coughing, bloody sputum after coughing, night sweats, fever and weight loss.

There are vaccines against TB, but they are usually only administered in countries where the disease is a serious problem. Many of the vaccinations are also not very effective against the adult version of the disease. This, combined with the rise of drug-resistant TB has made most vaccinations a possible deterrent, not a sure one.

Luckily TB can be treated successfully if diagnosed quickly. The later the disease is treated, the more lasting damage will be done, but most patients make a full recovery from the actual disease. Treatment consists of a course of antibiotics and other medication that needs to be taken over the course of several months. It is important that his course is completed to prevent the disease from recurring.

Typhoid

A problem in many countries where adequate waste disposal is not available, typhoid fever, or simply typhoid, is a problem in some African countries that you need to be aware of.

Typhoid is caused by a bacteria that is spread from person to person via the faecal-oral route through the ingestion of contaminated food and water. One of the problems of typhoid is that even a person that is not currently suffering from symptoms may still be a carrier. The infamous Typhoid Mary of the early 20th century managed to infect quite a few families before officials realised what was going on.

The symptoms start with fever, headaches and tiredness. As the disease progresses other symptoms include stomach pains, constipation and the characteristic green and smelly 'pea soup' diarrhoea. Intestinal bleeding may also occur in serious cases.

Typhoid is not fatal if treated with a combination of antibiotics and rehydration therapy. A vaccine is available against the disease that has proven to be effective. Even with a vaccination, remember to watch what you eat and stay away from raw food and untreated water.

Traveller's Diarrhoea

No matter how careful you are, there is a chance that you may suffer from general gastro-intestinal distress that is colloquially known as traveller's diarrhoea. The cause of this discomfort is not due to any bacteria or virus, but is simply the body's response to an unfamiliar environment and food.

The symptoms generally include mild nausea and diarrhoea that may be accompanied with abdominal cramps. At most you will feel bad for a few days at most. The best treatment to treat the symptoms and to stay away from greasy foods or alcoholic drinks for the duration. It is also recommended that you drink plenty of water to keep yourself hydrated.

If the condition persists for more than a week or the symptoms become unbearable, then you must consult a physician as soon as possible.

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