Provided you’re up to date with vaccinations and take anti-malarials if visiting malarial areas, your main health risks are likely to be dehydration, heatstroke or sunburn due to the intensity of the desert sun, though travellers’ diarrhoea is always a possibility. These, however, are easily prevented by taking the simple precautions below.
Should you be unfortunate enough to fall ill, or have an accident, you can take heart from the fact that Namibia generally enjoys high-quality private medical facilities – though they are only located in the main towns, which could be some distance away. For this reason, you should make sure your medical cover includes emergency evacuation, especially if you intend to travel to remote parts of the country.
There are no mandatory inoculations for Namibia, although tetanus, typhoid and hepatitis A are typically recommended. In addition to checking some of the available online medical resources for further advice, make sure you consult a travel clinic six to eight weeks in advance of travel to give you time for any jabs or boosters. Clinics will often suggest considering further injections for hepatitis B and maybe even rabies, but they are only likely to be of relevance if you are intending to spend extended periods of time living among poor rural communities. In the case of rabies, even if you have the vaccinations, you will still need post-exposure treatment – a series of jabs – in the extremely unlikely event of your being bitten by a dog or wild animal. Travellers from countries where yellow fever vaccinations are mandatory must be able to produce a yellow fever inoculation certificate. Similarly, if you have come from a yellow fever-prone country such as Angola, you may be required to show proof of vaccination upon entry.
The danger of sunstroke or heatstroke posed by Namibia’s intense desert sun cannot be overemphasized. Wherever possible you should avoid any exertion during the heat of the day; walk in the shade; wear a wide-brimmed hat; and cover yourself with sunblock. Shoulders, noses, bald heads and feet (especially if wearing sandals) are particularly prone to sunburn. Drink plenty of water and other non-alcoholic drinks to avoid dehydration, and keep up your salt intake. It’s wise to carry a few rehydration sachets with you on your travels; these are widely available in pharmacies.
That catch-all phrase traveller’s diarrhoea, which usually results from drinking or eating contaminated food, is not commonly experienced in Namibia, in part because the water most visitors get to drink is of good quality and the amount of street food available in Namibia – usually confined to open markets – is limited. If in doubt, however, follow the tried and tested maxim – if a tad clichéd: peel it, boil it, cook it or forget it. If you do happen to get the runs, dehydration is a more likely risk, so you should ensure you drink plenty of water afterwards, with some of it preferably mixed with rehydration salts.
Malaria – transmitted by a parasite in the saliva of an infected female anopheles mosquito – can be fatal if left untreated. Symptoms – fever, chills, headaches and muscle pains – are easily confused with flu. Thankfully, only the northern strip of Namibia along the perennial rivers is a year-round high-risk area; other areas, broadly covering the northern third of the country, hold some risk during the rains (Nov/Dec–April/May), when periodically there are areas of stagnant water where mosquitoes can breed.
Malaria is most effectively combated through prevention – wearing long loose sleeves and trousers for protection at dawn and dusk, when the mosquitoes are at their most active, dousing yourself in repellent, and sleeping under a mosquito net or in screened rooms. Taking a course of appropriate prophylactics – consult a travel clinic – is also strongly advised.
Snakes and scorpions may feature heavily in films set in deserts, but in reality there’s very little chance of your seeing one, let alone getting bitten by one, as most scarper at the mere approach of a human. Moreover, the vast majority of snakes in Namibia are not dangerous. Still, it’s wise to take precautions: where there are places for snakes to hide, wear long trousers and closed shoes to minimize the risk of getting bitten; carry a torch when walking at night; and if camping, shake your shoes out before putting them on in the morning. If someone is bitten, above all ensure they don’t panic – but don’t try to suck or cut out the venom or apply a tourniquet in true Hollywood style; all these measures will do more harm than good. Try to remember what the snake looked like, keep the infected area immobile, tie a bandage (not too tight) a few centimetres above the area, and seek immediate medical attention.
In the areas of sluggish or slow-moving water in the Kavango and Zambezi regions, there’s a very low risk of bilharzia (schistosomiasis), though you’re unlikely to be swimming in the rivers due to the much greater risk of providing a crocodile with a good meal.