African Travel Guide: The Vaccines, Resources, and Tips to Know Before You Go

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Traveling to Africa? This guide will tell you everything you need to know before heading out on your African adventure!

The African continent is a vast and varied expanse, offering locals and visitors a plethora of experiences. From the lush banks of the Nile River to the diverse wildlife of the Serengeti to the arid climes of the Saharan desert — alongside urban metropolises such as Cairo, Nairobi, and Johannesburg — there are millions of unique experiences to be had on the continent. But as with all foreign travel, it’s important to stay abreast of the African travel resources, tips, and vaccines you’ll need for your trip to Africa.

Travel to any place with a different climate than your own and with different health concerns should always be prefaced with some solid research. That’s why we’re breaking down some of the major things you’ll need to keep in mind for your trip to Africa. It should be noted that what we’ve offered here is a very broad resource— Africa is an enormous and wide-ranging place after all— so you should do more research on the specific countries and regions where you’re headed.

However, if you’re looking to find out the basics on travel to Africa, then you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’re going to go over some simple and useful tips for keeping yourself healthy before and during your trip to the African continent. Here’s what you’ll get in this guide:

  • A complete guide for vaccinations you need to travel to Africa
  • Resources on when and where to see a medical professional before your trip to Africa
  • Helpful tips you should know before you leave, including necessary paperwork, illness prevention measures, and where to find the latest travel advisories
  • A comprehensive checklist of items to bring with you for your African adventure

Health concerns and medical requirements for traveling to Africa

Vaccinations for African travel

Any time you travel to a foreign country, particularly those with significantly different climates than what you’re accustomed to, you’ll need to take your health into consideration. In order to make a trip to Africa in particular, these are the vaccinations that you’ll need and/or want to have for travel to the continent:

Required vaccinations for traveling to Africa

  • Meningitis. Meningitis is a dangerous brain infection caused by a virus or bacteria. It is transmitted through saliva and respiratory secretions. Although Meningitis infections occur throughout the world, they are especially prevalent in the Meningitis belt of Sub-Saharan Africa. Meningitis can be treated by antibiotics, but it’s a potentially fatal disease that needs to be caught early. This vaccine is highly recommended for travel throughout Africa and is required for people traveling to Mecca for the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage. The vaccination, which is typically given to younger folks starting at age 11 or 12, protects against four varieties of Meningitis and is usually done in two or three injections.
  • Yellow Fever. Yellow Fever is a serious virus caused transmitted via mosquito bites. The virus is especially prevalent in certain areas of Africa, and because there is no treatment, it’s recommended that people entering high-risk areas get the vaccination. Several countries require the vaccination for entry— you can find a list of them from the World Health Organization (WHO) here

Recommended vaccinations for traveling to Africa

  • Hepatitis A. Hepatitis A is a liver disease caused by the Hepatitis virus. It’s typically transmitted through contaminated water and food, and there isn’t a specific treatment for the virus, though most people are able to fully recover within a few weeks. The vaccination is given as a series of two shots administered six months apart.
  • Hepatitis B. Hepatitis B is also an infection of the liver caused by the Hepatitis virus. Hepatitis B is transmitted by blood, semen, and other bodily fluids, typically through contaminated medical instruments or unprotected sex. Again, most people who contract Hepatitis B will recover fully, although it may take several months. The vaccination is given over a six month period, though an accelerated 21-day version is available.
  • Polio. Polio is a serious and potentially fatal virus that can infect the brain and spinal cord, causing paralysis and muscle wasting. It’s generally spread from person to person, typically through contaminated food and water sources. There is no cure for polio, though measures can be taken to alleviate symptoms. The vaccine is usually administered to young children, but if you haven’t gotten it yet you will likely need to for travel to Africa. For travel to some countries where Polio is especially prevalent, including Nigeria, you may need to get a one-time booster shot.
  • Rabies. Rabies is a serious viral illness contracted from the bite of an infected animal. Your doctor may recommend a preventative vaccination if you’re headed to a region with high rates of rabies infection or if you’re going to be in close proximity with animals. Rabies can be treated with the vaccine and other measures, but is typically fatal if not properly treated. The vaccination is given in three injections over the course of three to four weeks.
  • Typhoid Fever. Typhoid Fever exists throughout the world, but tends to be especially prevalent in areas lacking access to quality medical care. It is generally transmitted through contaminated food or beverages as a result of ingestion of infected fecal matter. Typhoid is treated by antibiotics, but it has a 30% mortality rate when not properly treated. The vaccination is typically given in one dose at least two weeks before traveling.

Helpful routine vaccinations for African travel

In addition to getting specific travel-related vaccinations, it’s crucial that you’re also up to date on all of your routine vaccinations. These include the following:

  • Diphtheria, Pertussis, and Tetanus (DPT)
  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR)
  • Meningococcus
  • Pneumococcal
  • Polio
  • Rotavirus
  • Varicella (chickenpox)

You’ll notice that a few of these vaccines are repeated from your list of recommended vaccines above, and there are two reasons for that. First, not everyone had all of these vaccinations as a child, so it’s important that you get them completed if you plan to travel to Africa and most other places abroad. Plus, getting your vaccines lowers the chance of spreading infections to others in the US, particularly those who are immunocompromised.

Second, for some of these shots, your doctor may recommend a booster if you’re heading abroad. With measles, for example, instances in the US are rare, but in places where the disease is still prevalent, it’s typically best to get a booster. Depending on your destination in Africa, doctors may recommend getting a booster shot for Polio, Hepatitis A and B, and Tetanus.

The CDC and WHO also suggest that you get shots for both the flu and pneumonia before you leave, though these are not required. They recommend that all shots be completed within two years of your departure date.

When to see your doctor before traveling to Africa

It’s crucial that you have all of your medical requirements taken care of in advance of your trip or else you may have trouble entering your destination. Your safest bet is to see a doctor (or have a doctor come to you) a few months before your trip to make sure you’ve got all your ducks in a row. However, for most of your vaccinations, you should at least aim to have them done four to six weeks ahead of your departure. And, in a pinch, even getting your shots done a few days before you leave will give you some protection.

Where to get health care before traveling to Africa

One of the best resources for travel to Africa and other foreign destinations are travel clinics. These clinics are specifically geared toward preparing you for travel abroad and will likely be able to provide more detailed and accurate information than your primary care provider.

Here’s where to find some of the best travel care:

Preventing illness while traveling through Africa 

When it comes to preventing illness in a new environment, it’s important to do your research in advance so you don’t wind up encountering something you’re not ready to handle. Vacations in new places can be full of surprises, so it’s best to pack in as much knowledge as you can before you embark on your adventure. Here we’re going to go over the basics of some of the most common medical ailments you’ll come across in different places on the African continent:

Mosquito-borne illnesses

Whenever you travel to a tropical climate — those that are warm, wet, and humid — you’re likely to encounter significantly more mosquitoes than in cooler and more arid climates. These mosquitoes can transmit a number of different illnesses including malaria, yellow fever, Dengue fever, West Nile virus, Chikungunya virus, and, most recently, Zika virus. You can contract any of these illnesses from being bitten by an infected mosquito.

Most of these diseases and viruses exist throughout the African continent, however there are some areas where you’ll need to take added precautions to avoid contracting mosquito-borne illnesses. If you’re traveling to the central belt of Africa — latitudes south of Saudi Arabia and north of Namibia — you should exercise special care as mosquito-borne diseases tend to be most prevalent there. 

In particular, the World Health Organization (WHO) lists Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique, and Cote d’Ivoire as the top six countries bearing the burden of malaria outbreaks. Together cases in these countries account for nearly half of global instances of the disease.

Fortunately, there are some simple precautions you can take to avoid contact with infected mosquitos. Here are some of the best:

  1. Avoid being outside during mosquito feeding hours, particularly at dusk and at dawn.
  2. Wear a strong insect repellent at all times, especially while outdoors. Although DEET has its downsides, it’s a good option for your travels in mosquito-heavy areas.
  3. Use mosquito netting in tents and over beds where you’re staying.
  4. Stick to long sleeve shirts, pants, and hats to keep the least amount of skin exposed. Choose loose-fitting garments as mosquitoes cannot easily bite through clothing that is farther from your skin.
  5. Mosquitoes are attracted to dark colors, so try to wear white and other light-colored clothing.
  6. If you’re spending a lot of time outside, get permethrin-treated gear and clothing as this will repel mosquitoes.
  7. If possible, stay in air-conditioned and screened rooms which are less appealing to mosquitoes. 

Food and waterborne diseases

Another important consideration when traveling is the possibility of contracting food or waterborne illnesses. In some parts of the African continent, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, water scarcity is a major public health concern. Proper sanitation and equipment to purify water are hard to come by in urban and rural areas, especially those that are poverty-stricken. This increases the spread of waterborne illnesses including typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery, and, most devastating, diarrhea.

When clean water is in low supply, it can have some other troubling effects. First, sanitation often takes a back burner as drinking water takes priority. This can increase the likelihood of food and waterborne illnesses, both in households and in restaurants and food service establishments. Second, many people will stock up on water and store it in their homes which again can create a perfect environment for waterborne disease while attracting mosquitoes which, as we’ve just learned, are harbingers of disease.

Fortunately, there are precautions you can take to avoid food and waterborne illnesses including the following:

  1. According to the CDC, it’s generally best to stick to food items that are hot and those that are dried or packaged. They recommend steering clear of bushmeat (monkeys, bats, and other wild game), street food, and raw foods— except for fruits and vegetables that you peel or open yourself.
  2. The CDC’s water and liquid guidelines recommend choosing canned or bottled beverages, hot drinks, pasteurized milk in sealed containers, and alcohol. It’s best to avoid tap water, fountain drinks, ice made with tap water, and freshly squeezed juices as these may contain contaminants. 
  3. If you’re traveling somewhere with uncertain water quality, it’s best to have a few tools on hand including water sanitation tablets, items to boil or heat water, and water purification products such as the Lifestraw.
  4. Traveler’s Diarrhea impacts between 30 and 70 percent of folks who travel abroad, so it’s best to be prepared with either loperamide (Immodium or similar) or bismuth subsalicylate (Kaopectate, Pepto Bismol, or similar). Taken daily, these medications can ward off Traveler’s Diarrhea.
  5. Carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with you at all times and use it regularly to keep your hands clean and germ-free.

Travel alerts & information sources for traveling to Africa

It’s great to be prepared generally for your vacation, but it’s also important to keep an eye out for specific alerts and warnings for the countries where you are headed.

The US State Department offers detailed information as well as travel alerts to inform you of safety, security, and medical advisories in all foreign nations. Join the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to get messages on the latest security updates from the US Embassy in the country you’re traveling to.

You can find health-specific warnings and advisories for your destination through the CDC in addition to a wealth of information and resources regarding international travel. Check here for the CDC’s latest travel notices regarding disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and special events that may affect your health while abroad.

What paperwork you’ll need to travel to Africa

As you’re probably aware, there are a few crucial paperwork items that you’ll need in order to board the plane in the US and exit the airport at your destination. Here are a few common pieces of paperwork and documentation you should gather before you head out:

  • Passport. Unless you opt to pay for expedited processing, getting a new passport or renewing an expired one can take several weeks or even months. Apply far enough in advance of your trip to ensure you get your passport on time. The State Department also recommends that you have one or two blank pages in your passport and that your passport is valid for at least six months after your return as some countries may not allow you to enter otherwise.
  • Visas. Not all countries require a visa for entry, but some do. Visit the embassy page for the country you’re traveling to for requirements.
  • Consent for Travel with Minors. If you’re traveling alone with a minor, you may need documentation proving guardianship. Visit the embassy page for the country you’re traveling to for requirements.
  • International Driver’s Permit. If you plan to drive while abroad, you may need an International Driver’s Permit as some countries do not accept US driver’s licenses.

Your African travel checklist

Now that we’ve got the basics down, here’s a comprehensive list of things that you should bring with you on your trip. Of course, even with all of the most meticulous planning, sometimes stuff happens! We’ve included items that are great for disease prevention and for treating symptoms and sickness in the event that you do come down with something. Here’s what to bring:

Clothing and personal care items

Medications and health care items

  • A medical bracelet if you have specific needs or conditions
  • First-aid items including Band-Aids, antiseptic cream, Benadryl, etc.
  • Over-the-counter pain medication such as Tylenol to manage pain and reduce fevers
  • Kaopectate, Pepto Bismol, and/or Immodium to manage Traveler’s Diarrhea (TD). You can also ask your doctor to prescribe you an antibiotic such as Ciprofloxacin or Azithromycin to take as a preventative measure or in the event that you come down with TD.
  • Dramamine or a similar item to prevent motion sickness during travel on planes, boats, and automobiles
  • Malarone, doxycycline, or similar preventative medication to reduce the chances of getting malaria
  • Diamox or other altitude sickness medication if you’re planning to be at high altitudes
  • Personal prescription medications and backup items including Epi-Pens, insulin, and inhalers

Paperwork

  • Passport and other forms of identification
  • A copy of your health insurance card and paperwork with proof of vaccinations
  • A card with information for who to contact on your behalf in case of an emergency
  • Copies of all of your prescriptions in the event that you need them filled

With the advice we’ve provided here, you’ll be sure to be well prepared for your journey to the African continent, whether you’re off to see the Pyramids of Giza, the shop-lined streets of Marrakech, Victoria Falls — the world’s largest waterfall — or anywhere else on the continent. Take some time to consider the tips we’ve offered here and do a little of your own research to ensure that your adventure to Africa is one you’ll always treasure.

Of course, there are many different destinations to visit in Africa. While we could go into great detail about each one, we intended this guide to be an overview of what you'll need to start traveling in Africa. Be sure to check out guides to specific African countries, like this Ethiopia travel page from HandZaround, once you've nailed down the specifics of your trip.

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Emily Helwig