Travelling in Africa with a Chronic Illness or Disability

Planning an African vacation can be stressful enough under normal circumstances, but for vacationers with a chronic illness or physical impairment, a number of additional measures must be taken to safe guard their health before and during their trip. But with proper, careful preparations made in partnership with your doctor and vacation service providers, it is possible to enjoy an African getaway in spite of a chronic disease or physical limitation. Living life to the fullest under the African sun is a possibility with a few smart choices and easy phone calls.

Chronic Illness

When travelling with a chronic illness, the most basic precautions can often be the most important. Carefully pack your medication, bringing enough to tide you over as it may be difficult to get your exact medication for a refill in less developed parts of Africa.

Make sure to pack it in an easily accessible part of your luggage, and note that some airlines may question you on the purpose of the medication so be prepared to explain. Also note what medication requires protection from the elements; the African heat may affect some particularly sensitive medications so be sure to store them in a cool, dry place away from any potential environmental hazards.

While preparing for your trip, check with your doctor to see if any factors in your destination may trigger or aggravate your condition. Bear in mind that African climate is likely drastically different from what you are used to, and what may seem normal to Africans can throw you for a loop and seriously hamper your vacation. Factors such as heat, humidity and dust can aggravate conditions such as asthma or COPD and may cause enough of a disturbance to force you to cut your trip short. It is wise to look up seasonal weather conditions to be sure that you won’t be taken by surprise by a sudden heat wave, cold spell or series of sand storms.

Also confirm if your hotel has an easily accessible health care center nearby. The further away from urban cities your destination is, the harder it usually is to find any sort of reliable medical aid. In such cases confirm if there are medical evacuation or transportation options that can get you to a doctor in case your health takes a turn for the worse for any reason. It would also help to find out if there are any doctors familiar with your condition that you can see during your vacation if need be.

Before leaving home, confirm which immunizations you will need to be allowed entry to the country of your choice. Bear in mind that immuno-compromised or HIV positive patients may have adverse effects to live vaccines, or even develop the disease they are meant to be receiving protection from. It is therefore of the utmost importance that you contact your individual specialist doctors for a recommendation on how to proceedwithout aggravating your pre-existing condition.

Certain diseases are also endemic in some parts of Africa, such as malaria, and patients with reduced or absent spleen function (asplenia) are encouraged to stay away from such areas. Use of alternate vaccines may also prove less effective than live ones, so seek medical advice on whether you will require additional doses, such as the attenuated (not live) Hepatitis B vaccine, which will require double the normal dose to provide protection.

For some illnesses, you may need medical proof that you are fit to fly before your chosen airline allows you to use their facilities. This is usually done, understandably, to ensure there will be no legal ramifications for the airline should the flight compromise your health in any way. You may be required to fill a Passenger Medical information form, sign a waiver or even be examined by an independent physician provided by the airline.

Travelers with chronic illnesses may also be vulnerable to deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in the course of the lengthy flights needed to reach your African destination even though travel-related DVT may also manifest in patients with low risk.

Little evidence exists to support preventatively taking aspirin or other blood thinners, but medical professionals do advocate for exercise during the flight, such as simply taking a walk down aisles, and keeping well hydrated for the duration of your flight. If possible, request provisions that allow you to elevate your legs to reduce chances of swelling. Those who have previously suffered DVT should consult doctors about using anticoagulants and avoid flights for a length of time as recommended by health care professionals.

Travellers with diabetes should be aware of a potential need to adjust their doses for trips to destinations with a time difference of more than four hours. You can work together with your doctor to plan your insulin regimen around your intended schedule for your vacation.

Even so, it is important to keep a close eye on your blood glucose levels during your vacation. Diabetes is becoming more and more common in Africa, so it is likely that you will be able to find medical support if needed during your trip.

Other precautions such as wearing a medical alert bracelet and keeping snacks and insulin in carry-on luggage can also help manage your diabetes. Insulin is generally stable at room temperature so there is little need to ask the cabin crew to refrigerate it, as there is a chance it may be misplaced in the general commotion of the flight.

If you have dietary restrictions or special needs, you’ll want to find out if your hotel or preferred restaurants can accommodate you. For example, if you are on a gluten free diet this may leave you with a very limited choice of food, as gluten sensitivity is not common in Africa and you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything to eat. Some luxury lodges in east Africa can accommodate individual food preferences or needs, but by and large you are expected to take what’s available and bring your own food if you have special requirements.


When preparing to travel to Africa, it is wise to call ahead or go online to see what provisions are made for the differently-abled in airports, hotels and attractions such as museums and restaurants. You’ll likely have to plan your itinerary around these places.

Some airlines don’t offer in-flight support for those with special needs, so you may need to travel with a full-able friend or caregiver who can assist you. On the plane, request a seat near the lavatory for convenience if you have mobility issues. Plan your time at the airport around routes that are wheelchair accessible and call ahead to make sure the gate agents are aware of any special assistance you may require.

In Africa, the newer and more modern hotels will have wheelchair-accessible rooms and facilities, but older ones may not. Most countries do not require hotels by law to accommodate the less-abled, so you really need to do your research in advance. Check whether your preferred hotel has good accessibility and let them know well in advance what type of additional provisions you need

South Africa is the easiest country for the disabled to get around independently. Some of the rental car companies offer vehicles with hand controls for paraplegics, and both power and non-electric wheelchairs can be rented from companies such as Mobility One or Mr. Wheelchair.

There are tour companies that cater to travelers with mobility, hearing and visual impairment, such as Endeavour Safaris and Go Africa Safaris. Online resources such as Disability Travel can point you to establishments that cater to the disabled traveler.

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