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Guyana - Health and safety
Kathryn Boryc with Dr Felicity Nicholson. For up-to-date information on health issues across Central & South America, 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 common in many parts of Guyana 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 common too.
Make sure all your immunisations are up to date. A yellow fever vaccination is advised for health as there is risk of the disease, and immigration officials may require you to show proof of immunisation upon entry if you are entering Guyana from another yellow fever endemic area (a requirement that excludes visitors from North America and Europe). A valid yellow fever vaccination certificate (currently valid for life since July 2016, although there are exceptions so always check) will then be required on entry. If the vaccine is not suitable for you then you would be wise not to travel. Yellow fever is prevalent in parts of Guyana and has around a 50% mortality rate in those who are non-immune to the disease.
It’s also unwise to travel without being up to date on tetanus, polio and diphtheria (now given as an all-in-one vaccine, Revaxis). Immunisation against hepatitis A, typhoid, rabies, hepatitis B, and possibly tuberculosis (TB) may also be recommended.
Despite recent efforts, malaria remains a problem in parts of Guyana. The interior of Guyana is considered to be a sufficient risk for malaria that anti-malarial tablets are advised; Georgetown and the coastal areas are considered very low risk so they are not deemed necessary.
Though advised for everyone, a pre-exposure course of rabies vaccination, involving three doses taken over a minimum of 21 days, is particularly important if you intend to have contact with animals, or are likely to be 24 hours away from medical help. If you have not had this then you may need to evacuate for medical treatment, as local hospitals almost certainly will not have all the necessary treatment.
Anybody travelling away from major centres should carry a personal first aid kit. Contents might include a good drying antiseptic (eg: iodine or potassium permanganate), Band-Aids, suncream, insect repellent, aspirin or paracetamol, antifungal cream (eg: Canesten), an antibiotic to treat severe diarrhoea, antibiotic eye drops, tweezers, condoms or femidoms, a digital thermometer and a needle-and-syringe kit with accompanying letter from a health-care professional.
Bring any drugs or devices relating to known medical conditions with you. That applies both to those who are on medication prior to departure, and those who are, for instance, allergic to bee stings, or are prone to attacks of asthma. Carry a copy of your prescription and a letter from your doctor explaining why you need the medication.
Travellers should take precautions to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes at all times by using insect repellents (at least 30% DEET on exposed skin). As the sun is going down, don long clothes and apply repellent on any exposed flesh. Pack a DEET-based insect repellent (roll-ons or stick are the least messy preparations for travelling). You also need either a permethrin-impregnated bednet or a permethrin spray so that you can ‘treat’ bednets in hotels. Permethrin treatment makes even very tatty nets protective and prevents mosquitoes from biting through the impregnated net when you roll against it; it also deters other biters. Otherwise retire to an air-conditioned room or burn mosquito coils or sleep under a fan. Coils and fans reduce rather than eliminate bites. Travel clinics usually sell a good range of nets, treatment kits and repellents.
Prolonged immobility on long-haul flights can result in deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which can be dangerous if the clot travels to the lungs to cause pulmonary embolus. The risk increases with age, and is higher in obese or pregnant travellers, heavy smokers, those taller than 1.8m or shorter than 1.5m, and anybody with a history of clots, recent major operation or varicose veins surgery, cancer, a stroke or heart disease. If any of these criteria apply, consult a doctor before you 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. The Bradt website has a Central and South America health section to help travellers prepare for their trip.
Medical facilities in Guyana
The medical facilities in Guyana will almost certainly be limited which is another reason for having appropriate and robust medical insurance. Always contact them sooner rather than later if you are unwell. Also ensure that you take all your prescription medications with you as it is extremely unlikely that they will be available in Guyana.
When doing initial pre-trip research on Guyana, it would be easy to be turned off by the crime in the country. The media love to sensationalise stories of bandits, pirates and machete-wielding husbands. Crime rates are indeed high in Guyana, but they are mainly concentrated along the coastal areas and foreign tourists are rarely targeted. Keep in mind that most visits to Guyana are trouble-free, and occurrences of crime in the interior are fairly uncommon
Guyana is a developing country with a noticeable disparity of wealth. Guyana is also a major drug transhipment country, with a large amount of cocaine funnelling into the country from Venezuela and being shipped out to other Caribbean countries, the US and Europe. Both are behind many of the crimes that take place in Georgetown and other coastal towns and rarely affect those not involved. In 2016, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) opened an office in Georgetown to help the Guyanese authorities crack down on drug trafficking; this has already seen some major results.
Petty crimes such as pickpocketing, purse snatching and theft of other goods occur throughout Georgetown and travellers should always remain on the defensive. The best way to avoid crime is by not showcasing any signs of wealth. Don’t travel with valuable jewellery. In Georgetown and other areas along the coast, don’t prominently display cameras, music players or other high-priced electronics. (In fact, in Georgetown, unless you are on an organised tour or with locals, you may want to consider keeping any expensive cameras at the hotel and purchasing postcards.) When going to banks or cambios (businesses that exchange foreign currencies) to change money it’s advisable to always use a reputable taxi company (hailing an unmarked car from the street in front of the bank may not be the best option).
Don’t carry large sums of money around town and it may be a good idea to disperse your notes throughout a few different pockets so that you don’t pull out a large wad of money when paying for something. If you ever find yourself the victim of a robbery, it’s best to hand over whatever is being demanded without resisting. Most injuries that are the result of a robbery occur because of resistance. All crimes should be reported to the local police, but don’t have expectations of your case being solved.
Walking in Georgetown is generally okay during daylight hours, but taxis should be used at night. Most hotels and restaurants have security. Exercise extra caution while walking on Sundays, when the city’s streets are much less populated. When visiting the sea wall it’s recommended to avoid deserted stretches (east of Celina’s Atlantic Resort is best) and to go only when it is most populated with walkers and joggers (roughly 17.00–18.00). The sea wall has been the scene of various crimes in the past so it’s advised to go with at least one other person and avoid the area at dark (except on Sunday night when it becomes a gathering place for the entire town).
In the waters there are also attacks by pirates on fishing vessels. It is very rare for such an occurrence to take place on public speedboats or ferries. Again, if you exercise caution, don’t flaunt any valuables and remain alert and vigilant your time in Guyana will most likely be trouble-free.
In general, the most common problems women travelling in Guyana will encounter are inappropriate comments and verbal harassment. Maintain your composure and do not react to verbal comments or hissing/sucking. Be sensitive to the local dress standards; you may want to dress more conservatively to help avoid unwelcome attention. You may also want to wear a ring to fend off unwanted suitors. Use common sense – don’t walk alone at night and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Stay in well-populated areas, as most acts of robbery or assault take place on lonely streets. Sundays and holidays tend to be particularly quiet, so be careful if walking around Georgetown alone on these days. Look and act confident; walk like you know where you are going – if you display self-assurance, you may ward off some potential danger.
Guyana is, unfortunately, the only country in South America where homosexuality remains illegal. According to the country’s draconian penal code, any male persons committing or attempting to commit an act of ‘gross indecency…shall be guilty of misdemeanour and liable to imprisonment for two years.’ ‘Buggery’ is listed as a felony and can carry penalties from ten years to life in prison. There is no reference to lesbianism in the books, making it technically legal, but not necessarily tolerated.
In 2001, Guyana’s parliament voted to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation, but under extreme pressure from religious groups, President Jagdeo refused to assent to the amendment bill. In 2003, parliament was scheduled to again discuss the bill. To garner public support and advocate against homophobia, the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) was formed at this time. Parliament proposed another bill, but the ruling party once again said it would not vote on it. Since 2003, SASOD has continued its advocacy work in Guyana and regularly organises LGBT film festivals, poetry nights and other special events at locations in Georgetown including the Sidewalk Café and Oasis Café. Actual enforcement of, and punishment associated with, the law outlawing homosexuality is extremely rare in Guyana. Gay travellers are unlikely to encounter any problems during a visit to Guyana, but it isn’t recommended to make a point of drawing attention to their sexual orientation. Other than the sporadic events organised by SASOD (who have offices in Georgetown), there is nothing that can be called a gay scene anywhere in the country.
Travellers with a disability
Guyana, as a whole, is relatively inaccessible for people with disabilities. In Georgetown and other coastal towns, pavements are a rarity and potholed road surfaces would prove challenging for those in a wheelchair. Accessibility to public areas is limited. But with patience, people with disabilities can still travel throughout Guyana. In Georgetown, few hotels have lifts (namely Pegasus Guyana and Princess Hotel), but others will have some rooms on the main level; enquire when making your booking or seek assistance from a local tour operator. At interior lodges, few are built to accommodate people with disabilities. Many are elevated off the ground and use steps for access. Some, like Rock View Lodge and Karanambu Lodge, have cabins and rooms that are on ground level. If travelling to the interior, it is recommended to use a local tour operator that is familiar with the infrastructure of each individual lodge so proper arrangements can be made.
For transportation, taxis or private vehicles are recommended. Minibuses are often overcrowded and the drivers are likely to be less patient with riders needing extra time to get in and out of the vehicle. While it won’t always be easy, most people with disabilities will likely be pleasantly surprised by the amount of assistance and help they receive. Getting in and out of small aircraft, aluminium boats, and 4x4 vehicles can be a challenge, but helping hands will always be available to make experiencing Guyana’s interior a possibility.
Travelling with children
Depending on their age, travelling in Guyana with children, particularly in the interior, could be considered challenging. Simply put, child-specific facilities do not exist. This could make travelling with young children difficult. If the child is a bit older, however, and enjoys hiking, boat trips, fishing, 4x4 trips on rough roads and generally being outdoors, Guyana could prove a wonderful experience.
At interior lodges, while there is much to do that revolves around nature, the travel can be arduous and parents may worry about safety precautions not being up to Western standards. Child-size life jackets, for example, would likely be hard to come by and child seats for vehicles are not common (better to bring one). If considering travelling with children in Guyana, parents should review the health section in detail and make sure all necessary precautions and vaccinations are considered.