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Gabon - Health and safety
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 most likely to carry you off. Road accidents are not uncommon in many parts of Gabon 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. Gabon’s medical facilities are relatively good. Most hospitals are public, but in the main cities (Libreville, Port Gentil and Franceville) there are some good private clinics.
Along with road accidents, malaria poses the single biggest serious threat to the health of travellers in most parts of tropical Africa, Gabon included. It is unwise to travel in malarial parts of Africa while pregnant or with children: the risk of malaria in many parts is considerable and these travellers are likely to succumb rapidly to the disease. The risk of malaria above 1,800m above sea level is low.
Preparations to ensure a healthy trip to Gabon 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), typhoid and hepatitis A. Immunisations against meningococcus and rabies may also be recommended. Proof of vaccination against yellow fever is needed for entry into Gabon. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that this vaccine should be taken by those over nine months of age, although the International Certificate of Vaccination against Yellow Fever is only officially required for those over one year of age. There is a risk of yellow fever disease in Gabon with a mortality of around 50% so if you are unable to take the vaccine on health grounds then you would be advised not to travel.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on 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.
Although Gabon is, by and large, a safe country in which few travellers experience any problems, it doesn’t hurt to remain cautious and be prepared for potential dangers. Contrary to what you might expect, tropical disease, most notably malaria, poses the biggest safety threat, at any time of year. Heavy crime, such as muggings and hold-ups, are comparatively rare, but travellers should guard against petty crime. Pickpocketing and bag snatching are quite common in busy areas like markets, buses and train stations. As anywhere in the world, there are certain areas that are more prone to security problems than others. Just be sensible and don’t put temptation in anyone’s way. Be cautious in poorer areas and isolated beaches, particularly around Libreville, and avoid walking on any beach at night.
Taxis in Gabonese cities operate like public transport and are the easiest and most common way of getting around town, picking up passengers heading in the same direction until the car is full. Take taxis in the bigger towns and cities rather than walk, and be sure to use authorised taxis only. The driver’s ID should be hanging from the rear view mirror. After dark it is better to avoid share taxis and pay for a depot. It’s even safer to book a taxi from a reputable company or through a restaurant or hotel.
As anywhere in the world, there are certain areas that are more prone to security problems than others. Just be sensible and don’t put temptation in anyone’s way.
Road travel in Gabon can be challenging or even dangerous. Owing to the lethal combination of hazardous road conditions and risky driving, accidents are common. You can lessen risks by avoiding reckless and/or drunken drivers, ill-maintained vehicles or travelling by road at night. Carry your passport with you at all times, particularly when travelling. Random controls are a feature of life in Gabon and foreigners can be a lucrative target. You will undoubtedly hear some unpleasant stories of nights spent in jails for those without papers. These may not be usual or may not even be true, but it’s not worth the risk.
As soon as you leave or enter a town by road, you will encounter several checkpoints to verify that all vehicles have a fire extinguisher and first-aid kit and that all drivers have a licence, registration and proof of insurance. Often a quick look will suffice, but some officials tend to carry out a more detailed research. Since 2011, police officers have been required to wear a badge with an identity number to aid citizens seeking to report extortion attempts. Make sure your and your vehicle’s paperwork are in order, stay calm and polite and you’ll be waved through – at some point.
Carry your passport with you at all times, particularly when travelling. Random controls are a feature of life in Gabon and foreigners can be a lucrative target.
Ecotourism is generally safe; however, be sure to use reputable guides who know the forest or rivers well, as fake guides posing as experts put their clients’ and their own lives in danger. Do not venture away from your organised tour group. In the unlucky event that something happens, don’t expect miracles from the police: their response is often slow. They may do little or nothing to help, or may even request a payment to listen to you. For police assistance, call tel: 01 76 55 85 in Libreville and tel: 07 36 22 25 in Port Gentil. If you need emergency medical assistance during your trip, dial tel: 1300 or tel: 1399, pray that somebody will pick up the phone, and ask for an ambulance.
It’s essential to organise comprehensive travel insurance that covers medical complications, including an emergency flight home. The cost of travel insurance is based on a number of factors such as the type of cover requested, the age of the insured, the destination of travel, length of stay and any pre-existing medical conditions. A wide range of policies are available so shop around. Bear in mind that you may have to pay for medical treatment on the spot (and that this can be very expensive in Gabon) and claim later, so keep all documentation.
Travelling alone in Gabon does not pose any particular security problems for women, although, as anywhere in the world, there are always drageurs on the prowl. The more flesh you bare the more attention you invite, so if you don’t want it, don’t wear it. Gabonese men may try to flirt, but usually a (fictitious) boyfriend or husband does the trick. And the extra attention you may receive will tend to be more annoying than dangerous.
Outside of Libreville and Point Gentil, expect attention from men and women alike who are simply curious about who you are, where you come from, where you are going and, above all, why you are alone. There is also no shortage of people keen to practise their English.
In December 2008, Gabon co-sponsored and signed the non-binding UN declaration on sexual orientation and gender identity calling for the global decriminalisation of homosexuality – one of only six African countries to do so. Homosexuality is not explicitly illegal (in contrast to most African countries) but is definitely frowned upon by most people. Discrimination is a problem and many people turn away from gays who are open about their sexual identity. Predictably, you won’t find a vibrant gay scene.
Travellers with disabilities
Gabon has no infrastructure that suits visitors with disabilities. There are no laws for providing access to transportation, buildings or services, and few buildings in the main cities have disabled access. Only the more luxurious buildings have lifts. Staff at hotels are generally not used to taking care of visitors with specific needs, and disability awareness still has some way to go.
Travelling with children
The Gabonese love children and will go out of their way to help you get by. But pushchairs are not commonplace and you may have difficulty manoeuvring them in and out of buildings and along non-existent pavements and/or dirt roads. Baby milk is widely available, as are nappies, although for some mysterious reason the quality may be lower than that which the same brand offers at home.
For older kids, Gabon’s beaches and national parks offer countless exciting things to do. Check with tour operators where and when to go, as the less-travelled parks may be a bit too rough and some excursions may have age limits. Children can be more vulnerable to some health risks, such as malaria, so ensure you are well prepared and that you take all medical precautions.