The spread of the Ebola virus may have caused some travelers to become wary of visiting Africa, but should they be?
Phyllis Kozarsky, a professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Emory University, points out that the vast majority of the continent is unaffected by the epidemic.
“We have a tendency in this country to look at Africa as one country rather than a continent,” says Kozarsky, who also works with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Travelers’ Health division. In fact, of the 47 nations on the almost-12-million-square-mile continent, just six have reported Ebola cases, and four of those are in West Africa.
Kozarsky had these tips for people interested in visiting Africa:
Know what countries are affected, and how.
The CDC is recommending that people avoid non-essential travel to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, all in the western part of the continent. The agency has issued an alert for these three nations because of “unprecedented outbreaks” of the disease.
The decision to issue a Level 3 Warning is not taken lightly, Kozarsky says. “We realize that it not only impacts people here at home in the United States, but it also tremendously impacts the countries we put on our warning list in terms of tourism, in terms of business, in terms of just stopping or decreasing their economic ability to function.”
Additionally, the CDC recommends that travelers practice enhanced precautions in Congo (also known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in central Africa. Cases have been reported only in the Equateur Province, but travelers should keep abreast of reports in the event that it spreads further in Congo. The outbreak is not related to those in other countries and can be traced to one person who prepared contaminated bushmeat. Travelers there should avoid wild animals and raw or undercooked bushmeat, as well as take to heart the well-known advice to avoid the body fluids of those infected with the virus.
A Level 1 Watch is in effect for Nigeria, also in western Africa. Ebola cases there have been contained but, Kozarsky says, travelers should remain vigilant and practice the same kinds of hygiene habits they would otherwise. If no additional cases are reported, the travel notice will be removed for Nigeria.
Do your homework. The CDC is giving daily updates on the situation in Africa. For travel advisories, visit www.cdc.gov/travel.
Don’t lose sight of other diseases you are more likely to contract in Africa. Kozarsky says that something as simple as traveler’s diarrhea can have some of the symptoms as Ebola — diarrhea, of course, but also fever, chills and malaise. Dysentery and malaria are also dangers. If not recognized quickly, malaria can be fatal in 24 to 48 hours, Kozarsky says. So talk to your doctor or visit a travel health clinic in advance and obtain any necessary vaccines or medications.
Pack your travel health kit. This is good advice regardless of your destination. “I go to my local large pharmacy, and I take a cart, and I walk up and down the aisles,” Kozarsky says. “I pull off the items I like to have at home in the event that I have a minor illness.” A kit may save you a trip to the pharmacy or the stress of even trying to find one. Plus, you don’t have to worry about the quality of the medications.
The kit “can contain anything from chlorine and iodine tablets . . . to bandages to ibuprofen to cold remedies, whatever people want,” Kozarsky says. And make sure to keep it on you and not in your checked bags.
Don’t let your guard down after you return home. If you’ve been to West Africa, you’ll need to monitor your temperature for 21 days. Watch for headaches and body aches. And if you develop a fever after traveling to a malarial country, “that’s a medical emergency,” Kozarsky says. If you seek medical treatment because of symptoms, immediately tell your doctor where you’ve been and when, because he or she might not remember to ask. “It’s important to educate the public to be proactive in offering that information,” Kozarsky says.
Know that the CDC is working with the travel industry. Kozarsky said the CDC frequently confers with industry leaders and has also developed a webcast for airlines, aimed particularly at flight crews and informing them of what’s going on, what their obligations are and what they should not be fearful of.
As reported this week, there will be enhanced screening at five airports for travelers coming to the United States from the three most affected countries. Those travelers will fill out questionnaires and have their temperatures taken upon their arrival. Additionally, CDC experts will work closely with Customs and Border Patrol at the participating airports, which are Washington Dulles; John F. Kennedy in New York; Chicago O’Hare; Hartsfield- Jackson in Atlanta; and Newark Liberty in New Jersey.
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