Health in Kampala

Health in Kampala

Do the words yellow fever, bird flu, dengue fever, or sleeping sickness strike fear and apprehension in your heart? Well I’ve got good news for you, no need to worry… while these and other tropical diseases do exist in Uganda they are rare and seldom seen in visitors and expats. However there are two exceptions, Malaria and Bilharzia which I will talk about below.

While the nasty sounding diseases with funny names are rare this does not mean that visitors are rarely sick. In fact it tends to be the opposite they usually get everything that is going around due to lack of immunity to local germs. In particular, a lot of common colds, the flu and diarrhea. But there’s good news… eventually you become immune to the local bugs and pathogens and you can travel about and eat anything with renewed confidence.

Malaria

In Uganda the most dangerous female in town goes by the name of Anophylene. If you see her stay as far away as possible, and whatever you do don’t let her lips anywhere near you. You can identify her by her many peculiarities which include not liking heights. More than 10 feet above the ground and she starts to get dizzy. She’s a true late night party animal, and most active between 10 pm and before dawn. Weirdly enough she’s very snobbish about water sources. She doesn’t care for swamps, deep water, running water or dirty water. But prefers mainly shallow temporary puddles such as car tracks and footprints.

While malaria is present in Uganda, it is uncommon in Kampala. Since you now know about the habits of Anophylene (the malaria carrying mosquito) it may be easier to stay safe against infection. One of my favorite ways is to simply sleep under a treated mosquito net. Good quality nets are available at supermarkets and pharmacies all over Kampala. If you’re traveling outside of Kampala it’s usually recommended to take prophylaxis. See your doctor about getting a prescription for any of these effective pills: Doxycyclene (once a day & cheapest), Malarone (once a week & most expensive), Lariam (once a week & mid priced but has side effects in 10% of people that use it). Anti-malaria drugs are available at pharmacies throughout Kampala, but be sure to buy them from a reputable pharmacy as there are estimates that nearly 1/3 of all malaria medicine in sub-Saharan Africa is fake.

Malaria is easily treatable (if caught early) and medicine, such as Arthemether, is cheap a readily available in hospitals and health centers. However it is a very serious disease, if you start to feel any of the symptoms of Malaria make sure that you pick up a rapid test kit, or go to a hospital and get tested right away.

Bilharzia

Bilharzia is a common disease found in and around many of Africa’s fresh water lakes and rivers. It’s a nasty little  parasite carried by snails and has caused serious health and economic problems across the continent. I’ve had it, my girlfriend has had it, and many other friends I know have had it. While it is an easily treatable disease it’s best not to downplay its seriousness. According to Kampala based tropical disease specialist, Dr. Stockley “it can cause a huge range of multi-organ disease including infertility, renal failure, quadriplegia, epilepsy and even death.”

In Uganda Bilharzia can be found in almost all freshwater lakes and the Nile River. Dr. Stockley again warns that “most of the places advertised as ‘Bilharzia free’ seem to mean you get it without paying. However Lake Bunyoni and some of the crater lakes are genuinely Bilharzia free.”

While Bilharzia is a serious and nasty little disease it is easy  and cheap to treat. Uganda has far too many swimmable rivers and lakes to enjoy and many expats swim, raft, kayak, sail and waterski without worry. Just simply take the medicine if you have symptoms (especially around the 6 week mark after exposure), or every 6 months as a “de-worming” routine.

HIV & STD’s

When first coming to Uganda in 2006 as a study abroad student I was given some wise advice from an old grizzled British doctor that has been working here for over 20 years. When I asked the question “what is the most important thing to do to stay healthy during my time in Uganda” he responded immediately with “keep your knickers on.” Great advice when considering that HIV and other STD’s are very common in Kampala. Some estimates are that HIV is 2,000 times more common in heterosexuals in Uganda than in most European countries.

While condoms can be a great option for preventing pregnancy the best figures show that they only reduce the risk of transmitting an STD by about 10 times. That means 10 times with a condom equals once without. According to the latest statistics, over 9% of adults in Kampala have HIV, and it is assumed that the prevalence of STD’s is even higher.

Unfortunately women are even more at risk for getting HIV than men, according to Dr. Stockley “we know the risk of transmission from men to women is a lot higher, up to 10 times higher, than from women to men. It is also obvious that the men most likely to be infected are non-monogamous, non-celibate, sexually active and young. In other words the very ones likely to be interested in you! So the only sensible advice for short-term visitors especially the ladies is ‘don’t even think about it’. However if you can’t be that sensible, if you wake up in the morning realizing you have been stupid you must get post exposure prophylaxis as soon as possible.”

PEP (Post Exposure Prophylaxis) is available at many hospitals around Kampala and may work up to 72 hours later. If taken within 24 hours it is your best bet to prevent HIV. Hep B immunization will also be needed, and a bunch of other invisible and predictable diseases can be prevented by a single dose of 2 tablets of an antibiotic.

Immunizations

An important detail to think about before coming to Uganda is immunizations. Common immunizations your doctor may have you get are: Yellow Fever, Hep A, Hep B, Tetanus, Typhoid, and Meningococcal. It’s a good idea to check with your local Health Department or tropical disease clinic for a list of the most up to date immunizations recommended for Uganda and their costs. You can also check these websites that are consistently updated on recommended immunizations: www.cdc.gov/travel, www.istm.org or www.iamat.org

Some immunizations are a series of injections that take place over several months, so don’t put this off until the last minute or you may run out of time to complete the series. Also, make sure that when you get your immunizations your doctor fills out an International Certificate of Vaccination. You will need to bring this Certificate with you to Uganda.

*Note you can usually get vaccinations for: Hep A, Hep B, & Tetanus at your county health department for cheap.

Medical Facilities

There are three good private hospitals in Kampala. They are:

About Aaron

I'm the creative director of the music and arts organization Ensigo, and have been living in Uganda for close to three years. I’m thrilled to contribute to the Living in Kampala website, and will do my best to unveil some of Kampala’s hidden gems and local talent that I’ve discovered during my time here. Get in touch at aaron@livinginkampala.com.