Staying Healthy on a Kenyan Family Safari

It’s less than a week until senior editor Norie Quintos‘s trip to Kenya with her teen sons. In this posting, the third in a series of blogs on her trip, she covers vaccinations/medicines. Find the first and second posts here.

The glossy catalogs filled with pages of majestic elephants, lions in mid-roar, or huggable baby cheetahs rarely, if ever, mention the vaccinations or medications you’ll need for an African safari. The catalogs’ job is to romance and seduce, and not until you have fallen hard for Africa do you receive the get-down-to-business, no-more-cute-animal-photos information packet with “optional, recommended” travel health precautions against the scary tropical diseases you could catch.

The list of vaccinations is daunting, and includes Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Meningitis, Typhoid, Rabies, and Yellow Fever. The vaccines are also eye-poppingly expensive and not generally covered by insurance. The good news is you may not need every single one; it depends on your specific itinerary, your length of stay, your planned activities, and your health. To suss this out, you’ll need the help of an experienced travel clinician. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website details recommended vaccines and links to an external clearinghouse of travel clinics.

Here’s my advice. Start this process at least two months before your trip. I was surprised to find wide disparities in vaccine prices and office visit fees. There is also currently a shortage of Yellow Fever vaccine and many clinics are temporarily out of doses. (These shortages occur occasionally, due to inherent difficulties in vaccine production.)

Fortunately, I was covered by National Geographic’s excellent travel clinic. For my kids, I turned to Capitol Travel Medicine in Arlington, Virginia, which had knowledgeable staff handling the phones. It also offered the best prices I could find and could reserve two doses of the Yellow Fever vaccine. The nurse, Yvonne Knauff, carefully reviewed our itinerary, examined the children’s medical history and shot records (for instance, they had received Hep A and B shots prior to a trip to Costa Rica two years earlier), and talked to the kids about sun safety, insect protection, food choices, and the potential hazards of petting animals. She administered the necessary shots–Yellow Fever ($100) and Typhoid ($70)–and wrote out prescriptions for the malaria prophylactic Malarone. This expensive drug often costs $7 to $9 per pill. (Travelers need to take one the day before entering a malarial zone; one a day while in the zone; and one a day for a week after leaving the area.) Here, too, it helps to shop around. I found the best prices not at neighborhood drug stores such as CVS, but at discount warehouse stores such as Costco, where I paid $6.47 per pill. (Online Canadian pharmacies were also competitively priced.) Cheaper malaria drugs other than Malarone exist, though they may not work in certain areas or may have unpleasant side effects.

After consulting with the nurse, here’s what I put in our medicine kit: first-aid items such as bandages and polysporin topical antibiotic, remedies for upset stomach (Pepto-Bismol), diarrhea (Imodium), allergic reaction (Benadryl), fever (Advil), powdered electrolyte mix (Gatorade), extra pairs of contact lenses for me, extra prescription asthma medication for one son, copies of doctor’s prescriptions, 30 percent DEET insect repellent (young children may need a milder DEET formulation), sunscreen, lip balm, antiseptic wipes, and travel and medical insurance papers with contact phone numbers. Phew.

Next up in the travel preparations: Packing. Stay tuned.

For more on planning a safari, check out our Africa Trip Planner.

Photo: David McLain from Traveler’s Kenyan Safari Photo Gallery.