Medical tips and advice for visitors to South Africa

  • 02 June 2015 | Christine Marot
Cover your head and apply sunblock to prevent sunburn. Image courtesy of Roundedbygravity

The last thing on any traveller’s mind when heading off on a long-awaited holiday to a new country is falling sick. When visiting South Africa there is no cause for concern in this regard, as the country is well equipped with clinics, hospitals and capable medical personnel.

However, as is the case in any other country, it’s always a good idea to make sure your guests are aware of potential health risks so they can prepare in advance.

Those unfamiliar with South Africa would benefit from the following general medical advice:

Medical insurance

While it is the duty of travel agents to provide advice on suitable medical cover when tickets are purchased in the country of origin, if this has not been done, your guest should consider taking out comprehensive medical insurance because private medical care can be expensive. If travel plans include remote destinations, recommend that your guest's medical insurance cover caters for emergencies that may require hospitalisation or medevac transportation.

Clinics and hospitals

Cities and large towns in South Africa are well equipped with medical facilities and excellent medical personnel who are required to register with the Health Professions Council of South Africa. While private clinics and hospitals offer optimum healthcare, this comes at a premium. Many state hospitals also offer excellent care. While there are public hospitals throughout South Africa, as in many other countries, generally speaking your guest will get quicker and better care at a private hospital.

Recommend that your guests have medical insurance in case they require hospitalisation. Image courtesy of Monash University 

Medication

Pharmacies are well stocked and carry the equivalent of most international medicines. Health regulations prevent pharmacists from dispensing Schedule 3 and higher-scheduled drugs without a prescription, so if your guest is taking chronic medication, he or she should always carry a copy of his or her prescriptions in case.

Malaria

While most of South Africa is malaria-free, there is a risk factor in certain parts of the country, where the malaria-carrying mosquito is found. These areas are generally limited to the Kruger National Park, the Mpumalanga Lowveld, parts of Limpopo province, and the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal, particularly during the summer months.

Your guests should be aware if they are entering malarial areas and take precautions in the form of prophylactic medication if so. A number of anti-malaria medications are available from pharmacies, but note that some of these should be taken for some time before and after the holiday period for better protection.

If in a malaria area, it’s also advisable to use mosquito nets, mosquito spray, mosquito coils and cotton sleepwear for better protection. It is useful to be able to recognise malaria symptoms as these may present some time after returning home.

HIV/AIDS

It’s wise to be aware of how to mitigate the risks when it comes to HIV. The virus can only be transmitted through blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids and breast milk from an HIV-infected person. The highest risk is from unprotected sex, so the safest option is to abstain or to use a condom.

Sun

South Africa is a hot country, particularly when visiting during the summer months – November to February – when the risk of sunburn and sunstroke is at its greatest. Encourage your guest to wear a hat and sunglasses, and use a high SPF sunscreen (50SPF) to protect their skin against painful sunburn. It is also advisable to drink plenty of water to remain hydrated. 

Water

It's best to stay away from animals you don't know when travelling. Image courtesy of This Year's Love

It is safe to drink tap water in South Africa’s metropolitan areas. In fact, the country’s water has been described as “world-class”. In some rural areas, this may not be the case, so check first and take precautions. Bottled water is widely available.

Rabies

Although regular rabies clinics are held every year, dogs living in rural areas often don’t get the required jab. In the unlikely event of being bitten by a dog (or cat, cattle or a bat), no matter where this happens, tell your guest to ask the owner to show him or her a valid copy of the dog’s rabies inoculation. If they cannot do so, your guest should consult with a doctor as soon as possible, especially if the dog was behaving strangely. Find more rabies information here.