With Dr Felicity Nicholson. For up-to-date information on health issues across Africa, click here.
People new to exotic travel often worry about tropical diseases, but it is accidents that are the biggest danger. Road accidents are very common in many parts of Burkina Faso so be aware and do what you can to reduce risks: try to travel during daylight hours, always wear a seatbelt and refuse to be driven by anyone who has been drinking. Listen to local advice about areas where violent crime is rife too.
Before you go
Preparations to ensure a healthy trip to Burkina Faso require checks on your immunisation status: it is wise to be up to date on tetanus, polio and diphtheria (now given as an all-in-one vaccine, Revaxis, that lasts for ten years), and hepatitis A. Immunisations against cholera, meningococcus and rabies may also be recommended. Proof of vaccination against yellow fever is needed for entry into Burkina Faso if you are coming from another yellow fever endemic area. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that this vaccine should be taken for Burkina Faso by those over nine months of age, although proof of entry is only officially required for those over one year of age.
If the vaccine is not suitable for you then obtain an exemption certificate from your GP or a travel clinic. This does mean that you will not be protected against the disease, which puts you at risk. Yellow fever is transmitted by day-biting mosquitoes, so if the trip is imperative then wear loose long-sleeved clothing and protect exposed skins with insect repellents.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on http://www.istm.org/. For other journey preparation information, consult www.travelhealthpro.org.uk (UK) or http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/ (US). Information about various medications may be found on www.netdoctor.co.uk/travel. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
With their overlapping traffic of bicycles, mopeds, cars and enormous trucks, Ouaga’s roads can be a terrifying experience. Throw in the odd donkey cart, crazed coach drivers and wheeled trolleys carrying such hazards as long steel rods, it is a wonder the instance of accidents in Burkina Faso is not higher.
When driving in the two main cities, constant vigilance is absolutely vital. Cars drive on the right. At roundabouts, traffic coming onto the roundabout has right of way, so vehicles on the roundabout must stop to let oncoming traffic pass.
It is difficult to think of a safer country than Burkina Faso. Certainly, downtown New York, London or Sydney pose more problems for strangers late at night than Ouagadougou, which at no stage felt threatening. Burkina Faso has the lowest murder rate in the world, although whether that’s down to under-reporting is hard to say. Despite gun shops adorning what can sometimes feel like every urban street corner, armed violence is rare.
Women travelling in the company of men are unlikely to find much bother, other than being asked how their husband is doing and, if they’ve not got either a husband or children, why not and hadn’t they’d better hurry up and get on with it. For women travelling alone, it is a different matter. Claiming you have a boyfriend, girlfriend or husband is unlikely to cut much mustard. ‘Yes, I have a girlfriend too, now let’s go and get it on’ is as likely as not to be the reply.
Most women say they don’t feel in danger, but are worn down by persistent and unpleasant advances. There is the occasional stereotyped view that travellers and tourists are easy, and some men are quick to try their luck. It pays to be aware and exercise caution. Be on your guard at rowdy nightclubs, meeting places for touts on the streets, and bus and coach stations. If you feel uncomfortable in a taxi, ask to be let out before you reach your ultimate destination, or choose a suitably important person’s home as your destination – the local chief ’s or naba’s palace, for example.
Don’t expose unnecessary flesh. While girls in gold shiny singlets whooshing round on bikes are de rigueur for Ouaga, it’s best to reassess outside the capital. In Burkina, legs are considered sexually attractive. Short skirts and shorts court controversy. On the other hand, wearing a piece of colourful local cotton, no matter how badly or self-consciously, acts as an ice-breaker. Women will notice the effort, love the idea and even give tips on how to tie it properly.
Homosexuality is legal in Burkina Faso; the legal age of consent for same-sex activity is 21 (it’s 13 for heterosexuals). However, bear in mind that society is very conservative and that homosexuality goes against most people’s religious and traditional beliefs; so it’s best to be discreet.