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Health risks in South Africa

It’s always good practice to visit your physician 4-6 weeks before travel to ensure you’re up-to-date with necessary vaccinations.

There are other risks, such as sunburn, food and water hazards, and insect bites which cannot be immunised against, so talking these over may help you to prevent avoidable problems arising.

South Africa has some potentially dangerous diseases and parasites that need consideration, but in the first instance, all travellers to the country should be up-to-date with standard vaccinations including tetanus, diphtheria, polio, and MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella). Immunisation against Hepatitis A is also recommended.

Additional vaccinations you may consider

Cholera: not necessarily a risk in urban areas, where food and water are likely to be clean and safe, but a greater risk in the countryside. The advice is to practice good hygiene, and take basic precautions.

Hepatitis B: spread through infected blood and other bodily fluids, this may be a risk for those who come into contact with them through their occupation, or those who require surgery.

Rabies: higher risk in rural areas, and even if the pre-exposure vaccine has a price, you should seek out advice if you're bitten by a bat or other animal.

Typhoid: again, the greater risk in rural areas or places where restricted access to water and cleaning facilities may make basic hygiene difficult.

Yellow fever: not compulsory, but a vaccination certificate is required for those over one year of age who have come from a country considered at risk of transmission, or have been through an airport for more than 12 hours in that country. See here for a map of countries currently affected by yellow fever.

Malaria

Most of the country is considered safe and free of the disease, but there is a strip at the far north-east of the country that is classed as high risk (see map here). If you intend to travel in this area, antimalarials are recommended, and you will need to talk to your physician about this well in advance. Sometimes serious, occasionally fatal, malaria is not something that you can vaccinate against. Prevention is the best way of preventing exposure: mainly by covering the skin when in risky areas and using a net at night.

Malaria can develop up to a year after exposure; so if you feel unwell and develop a temperature after returning from a malarial area, seek medical attention urgently.

HIV/AIDS

It’s estimated that 7.1 million people are living with HIV/AIDS in South Africa, around 18.9% of the general population (compared with 0.16% in the UK). Standard precautions against transmission should be stringently used if you’re likely to engage in risky behaviour.

Tuberculosis

Those affected by HIV/AIDS live with a lowered immune system and so along with the condition comes a higher risk of contracting tuberculosis. There is a centrally-administered care programme in place, and although it is estimated that over 60% of those who have HIV/AIDS also have TB, more people are now receiving treatment for it than before. If you have any concerns about this, talk it over with your physician.

On-going health care

If you have an on-going chronic condition, you’ll need to discuss how your current treatment will be handled when you move — a discussion you will also need to have with your health insurance company.

Personal safety

Much is said about South Africa and personal safety, but it’s worth doing your research as some areas and habits are safer than others. Many expats live in gated communities or compounds and employ private security for their peace of mind. That said, the government is taking active steps to improve everyday safety, and there are areas where foreigners are free to enjoy the excellent bars, restaurants, and malls the cities have to offer. Drift out into the more rural areas — in particular, the national parks, and you'll experience the fascination and grandeur of South Africa's unique wildlife and landscape. Wherever you are in the country there are a few things that you need to keep in mind.

South Africa has a high level of violent crime. Aware of the benefit of having foreigners in the country, the authorities give priority to protecting visitors in larger towns. Keep to the main tourist destinations, and you’ll lower the risk, but if you want to visit other areas, such as the townships, make sure you consult a reliable guide first. Be particularly on guard if you attend a sports or other significant event, as the likelihood of crime tends to increase where there are crowds of people.

When travelling by car, keep to main roads and, if you're moving around and parking after dark, keep to well-lit areas — car-jacking and thefts are common. Don't store your valuables in your car where someone could smash a window and steal them while you're waiting at a junction. Be aware that some hijackers will place items in the road or pose as a hitchhiker to make you stop your car and take care on rural roads, as these may have the added hazard of potholes to navigate.

To minimise the risk of having your personal effects taken, take extra care of your cases at airports and terminals — make sure your valuables are with you and well out of sight in your hand luggage. Avoid drawing large amounts of cash from ATMs or exchange kiosks, and it's best to not have expensive items like jewellery, phones, and cameras on show.

Some areas are safer to travel through than others. The UK government has some useful advice for visitors to South Africa on their website.

The South African coast is well known for its beautiful sandy shores, with over 40 beaches awarded the Blue Flag for safety and sound environmental management. Avoid dangers such as strong rip currents by making sure you visit a beach with adequate safety information and ideally a lifeguard.

Beautiful, diverse, and a land of economic opportunity for the expat, South Africa has more than its fair share of hazards and health risks. Couple this with the relatively high cost of health care and it becomes even more important to make sure you get the right level of cover for you and your family. Talk to one of our knowledgeable team today to find out more about what we can do to help make your move to South Africa a safe and healthy one.

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