The Safari Experts
dietary problems

Dietary problems when travelling in Africa


The risk of getting a dose of diarrhoea whilst travelling in Africa is relatively high, although not nearly so likely as it used to be as there have been enormous improvements in food hygiene in most middle and higher quality lodges.

Most diarrhoea episodes are caused by foodstuffs contaminated with human faeces, which most commonly comes about by contaminated water supplies or a lack of basic hygiene in the kitchen. Taking precautions against diarrhoea should also protect you from similarly transmitted diseases such as typhoid, cholera, hepatitis, dysentery and worms.

The number one rule of hygiene in Africa is wash your hands as often as possible. This message should be taken very seriously and special attention should be given to making sure it gets through to children. Even if you would never normally think of doing so, in Africa it is well worth carrying hand-wash solution or wipes.

Until recently the maxim that had stood the test of time since colonial days was "peel it, boil it, cook it or forget it". In other words, take full control over everything that you consume. Salads, ice-cream and lukewarm food was always to be avoided.

Over the years these habits have become natural for us when travelling in most parts of Africa and it has therefore come as quite a shock to see how things have changed of late. Great efforts have been made to educate African chefs and other kitchen staff, whilst the kitchens themselves are often now to a much higher standard. Reliable refrigeration has become much more commonplace and anti-bacterial food washes are also widely used.

As a result travellers can often be seen enjoying all the previously forbidden foodstuffs like salads and ice-creams ... apparently with little adverse effects.

Here at ATR we have a range of different approaches. Generally speaking, those of us who have experienced more problems in the past tend to remain more cautious, whilst those who are yet to experience the joys of giardia tend to be far less concerned.

So far as drinks are concerned, most travellers in the more risky areas of Africa tend to stick to bottled fluids and mineral water is provided on most safaris and in most lodges. There have been incidents when bottled drinks have been found to be contaminated, but there are increasingly rare events. But the amount of plastic waste caused by so much bottled water is quite distressing. Some lodges try to counter this by providing either uncontaminated groundwater or purified water, in which case you will have to judge for yourself how reliable you think this will be. If you are extremely cautious or are travelling in areas where you may need to drink from natural water sources, then you may choose to carry purification filter equipment and chemicals in your medical kit, although these are unlikely to be necessary if you are booking your trip with us.

Whatever position you choose to take, it is important to acknowledge that the greatest risks tend to come not from food at the lodges, but from food and drinks purchased on the street. If you buy bottled water then make sure that the seal is intact. If you eat food in local restaurants then make sure that it is piping hot. If you buy fruit at the roadside then make sure that its skin is intact and that you do not contaminate the inside with any bugs lurking on the outside. Above all ... and this is one which we have fallen for ... when visiting a local village, don't be coaxed into trying the local beer, no matter how boring or even insulting that may seem.

Treatment ...

The biggest risk from a bout of diarrhoea is dehydration. The most important treatment is drinking lots of clean and clear fluids. The sachets of rehydration salts in your medical kit are optimised to restore the minerals that you are losing. If these are not available, then drinking warm Coke or Fanta is a widely recognised substitute, especially with added salt and a twist of fresh orange or lemon to add potassium. Try to continue to drink even if you are also vomitting. Three litres a day is the recommended fluid intake if you are not eating. If you do feel like food then bland carbohydrates are best.

Obviously if medical assistance is on hand then there is no harm in taking advice. If the condition is more serious then the sooner you can start treatment the better. A stool analysis can be helpful in determining the cause.

If the diarrhoea is bad or you are passing blood or slime, or if you have a fever, then you will probably need to take a course of antibiotics in addition to fluid replacement, in which case the Ciprofloxacin or Norafloxacin in your medical kit may be useful.

If the diarrhoea is greasy and bulky, accompanied by sulpherous, eggy farts and burps then one likely cause is giardia, which can be treated with the Tinidazole pills in your medical kit. This is a pretty nasty cure, you really feel that your whole guts are being thoroughly cleaned out by a foul-tasting chemical, but it has done the trick for us in the past, especially after one memorable but ultimately regrettable night on the local banana beer. We have also heard mention of the drug Metronidazole, but have no personal experience of it.

Disclaimer : Please note that all of the information on this page and elsewhere in the health section of our website is provided for information only. We suggest that you always refer to a health professional when seeking medical advice.
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