Sunday, September 14, 2014

Do you really have to worry about getting Ebola as a tourist in Africa?

Signed up for or thinking about taking a trip to Africa one of these days - and starting to wonder if maybe you are potentially putting your or your family's lives at risk because of the rampant Ebola outbreak in Western Africa?
In short, the answer is emphatically no.  You will not be acting recklessly or foolishly by traveling to Africa.  Ebola is affecting a significant number of people but - in context of the giant size of the continent of Africa  - it is restricted to a small and localized area in four African states:  Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. For the 1.1 billion people living in the other 43 countries on the African mainland and seven island states off the coast, life goes on as usual.
There are likely a hundred 'bad' things that can happen to you between now and the time you want to travel to Africa, or when you are there.  Ebola is not on the list.  It is tragic for the people involved but it is not a realistic threat to tourists traveling to Africa this year or next. 
Here is why:

Would-be travelers to various countries in Africa are understandably concerned about Ebola, as a result of a barrage of reporting about the issue, much of it playing up the ‘dread factor’ of the disease.  However if one looks at the facts of the matter dispassionately there is really little to no cause for alarm. For one thing there is the geography - a vast distance separating West and Eastern or Southern Africa - and also the nature of the virus/disease which makes it extremely unlikely to cause a situation which would affect travel to the rest of Africa

Right now, Ebola is not an issue at all in Southern or East Africa - there are no cases in either area and there has only been one known case of Ebola in South Africa ever.  Ebola is a fragile virus which does not travel well and it is not transmitted easily  - only with active contact with an infected person's bodily fluids.  An incubated person (not yet symptomatic) could fly all the way from Conakry in Guineau to Paris in an aircraft full of passengers and not infect a single one.  There is a documented case of such an event. The virus is not particularly hardy either and is easily eradicated with an application of a standard household antiseptic spray.

In the areas where it actively occurs - isolated parts of West Africa -  Ebola is a serious disease but the publicity and resulting fear of the unknown, is out of all proportion with actual risk to people in the rest of the African continent and beyond.  It’s horrible for those involved, of course, and tragic for medical workers but it isn’t the beginning of a global pandemic. The reason there is such a large but isolated outbreak in West Africa is due to lack of education, poor sanitation, and lack of effective medical care. None of those conditions are present in the tourism areas of Southern and East Africa, in major gateway cities like Johannesburg and Nairobi and in areas like the Serengeti, the Masai Mara, Kruger National Park, the Okavango Delta in Botswana and so on

Even if a few cases were to crop up in South Africa or Kenya, it will pose no direct risk for travelers to the area. Unless someone actually interacts with someone who is already showing visible symptoms of Ebola, there is no risk of infection.  In countries with effective medical care, adequate information about how the disease is spread and with good hygiene (all of which is the case for South Africa and East Africa) Ebola can and has been effectively managed and isolated. 
Here are links to a couple of articles which I think have some good information. 



The bottom line:  short of directly touching someone who is already showing symptoms of ebola, or who have died from it - which of course no tourist will ever do or even come close to - the risk of becoming infected is effectively zero. 
A good travel consultant will advise you to be concerned about malaria - because it kills 725,000 people in Africa every year.  Hence our recommendation to our clients to get a prescription for Malarone.  Other potential health issues include Hepatitis A, tetanus and polio.  Even yellow fever in some areas. 
So there are some health risks associated with traveling to Africa on safari, but Ebola is not one of them.  What we are in the midst of is a tragic yet very localized West African event.   Even if it does spread into a few other areas it is only a risk where the triumvirate of poor hygiene, lack of education about transmission and non-existent medical care are present.  Everywhere else the disease can and has been (in the past) isolated and controlled.  Which is why active Ebola patients can be flown into the USA with no risk to the rest of the population. 
I can see how media hype and mass hysteria about a 'dread disease' can create the impression that Ebola is a risk factor for Africa travel and I know that friends and family - who may not be very well informed about the reality of the issue - may question any Africa travel plans.

However if you look at the facts, getting infected with Ebola is the least likely of ANY potential poor outcome to an Africa trip.  It is just not realistic - by any stretch of the imagination - that tourists are going to be exposed to the virus.  The disease is almost exclusively affecting close family members or co-inhabitants of active sufferers - and medical workers.  Nobody else.
Plus:  all major tourism countries in East and Southern Africa (including South Africa, Botswana and Kenya) have stopped any flights from countries where Ebola is present and they have instituted very rigorous border control measures to prevent infected persons from entering.