Yes, I am Still Going to West Africa

Mali visa
I am going to West Africa next month. On November 23, I will arrive in Bamako, Mali and spend one week there before moving on to neighboring Burkina Faso, eventually flying out of Ouagadougou on December 6.

I booked my flights back in September and finalized an itinerary for the whole trip in the last week or so. It all became truly official when I picked up both of my visas while I was in Washington, D.C. for work this week.

I have been anticipating this trip since last spring, when representatives from buildOn let me know that it would be possible to go to visit the schools that Passports with Purpose raised money for them to build in southern Mali (I’m on the board of PwP and last December, we raised $84,000 for buildOn in our annual fundraiser). The timing over Thanksgiving is perfect both in terms of not needing to take as many vacation days and weather-wise, being the dry season in Mali and Burkina Faso. More importantly, the schools have now been completed and classes will be in session during my visit.

Mali Menie school
Students at the school buildOn built in Menie – one of the two I will visit on my trip.

My enthusiasm about picking up my visas this week was somewhat tempered, though, by the news that the first case of Ebola had been reported in Mali.

This really didn’t come as a shock and frankly, I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t happened sooner. Mali borders Guinea, which is where this outbreak of Ebola began. Back in August, as Ebola was spreading through Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone at unprecedented rates, I even briefly reconsidered this trip. But after meeting with someone at the travel medicine clinic at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, checking in with my contact at buildOn and exchanging emails with blogger Phil Paoletta who is currently living in Mali, I became comfortable that the risk of Ebola for a traveler to countries like Mali and Burkina Faso, with no known cases of Ebola, was very low.

One case of Ebola in Mali doesn’t change that. Here’s why:

  • The one case was diagnosed in Kayes, a city in the western part of Mali, nowhere near where I am planning to go. The girl did travel through other cities, including the capital of Bamako (where she only spent two hours), while she was symptomatic, but people still would have had to come into contact with her bodily fluids to become infected.
  • The victim was a two-year-old child who had traveled from Guinea and they have quarantined her, her family members and more than 40 others known to have come into contact with her. It seems possible that this could be contained, similar to the cases in Senegal and Nigeria. Both countries have now been declared Ebola-free.
  • Even if it is not completely contained, it is still not easy to catch. As the media keeps repeating over and over, Ebola is not airborne. Consider this: the family members of Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died of Ebola in Dallas, lived with him for multiple days while he was sick and none of them got Ebola. Likewise, Patrick Sawyer (the man who arrived in Nigeria by plane sick with Ebola) only passed it on to a handful of health care workers who treated him before knowing he had Ebola. No one on his plane got sick. And no one beyond those health care workers got sick.
  • There are still tourists wandering around West Africa – not many, I’m sure, but still some (Phil mentioned meeting travelers who had been through Sierra Leone with no issues). Yet the only Westerners who have caught Ebola are health care workers who were treating Ebola patients and the NBC cameraman who was covering the situation and was frequently in the vicinity of victims. I won’t be.
  • People can’t spread Ebola until they start showing symptoms and the sicker they are, the more contagious they are. Thus, the chances of rubbing up against someone out in public and getting Ebola is very low – if they are well enough to be moving around, they probably aren’t contagious enough to make me or anyone else get sick.
  • Even in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, where the virus is spreading the fastest, the risk of contracting Ebola is low – estimated to be 1 in 5,000, which is on par with the risk of dying in childbirth in the United States (1 in 5,500). The risk in Mali, with only one known case at this time, is much, much lower.

So yes, I am still going to Mali and Burkina Faso.

Will I be cautious? Yes.

Will I let fear ruin my trip? Absolutely not.


For more on Ebola:

What is the risk of catching Ebola on a plane?

Understanding the risks of Ebola and what ‘direct contact’ means

Questions and Answers on Ebola on the CDC website

WHO: Ebola doesn’t spread through the air like a cold

An Ebola survivor exemplifies how we should all react to the New York case

10 thoughts on “Yes, I am Still Going to West Africa”

  1. Thanks for your great information. I think, West Africa is most poor zone and every year, many people die their cause by many deseases. Nowadays, Ebola Virus have become their huge trouble.

  2. Hey Katie,

    Great, informative post. I obviously share the same perspective, as we have discussed over email. For the latest on the Mali situation, here are a few twitter accounts that I recommend. @joepenney and @baba_A – two journalist friends covering the story and @Niek_Partout, and ngo worker that has been posting reliable info. Thanks for the shoutout btw, but my site is .net not .com 😉 See you soon !

    1. Fixed the link!

      Thanks for the Twitter suggestions to follow – will definitely add them.

      See you in a few weeks!

  3. I’m so glad you wrote this! I can’t believe how many people are so freaked out about ebola and are completely ignoring the facts. The risk is so incredibly low for so many reasons. Please enjoy your trip, can’t wait to hear about it when you get back!

    1. Thanks! The hysteria and overreaction here in the US is really over the top. Although I can say I think I am now more worried about being thrown into quarantine when I return than I am about actually getting sick!

      1. That was my first thought, too. I’m curious how your friends, acquaintances and US government/immigration react when they learn that you’ve recently traveled to West Africa. I’m in China so I’ve only caught snippets about the Ebola outbreak, but the media reports I have read seem like a huge overreaction. Please write more about your experiences when you come home.

        1. Yes, I think it is a HUGE overreaction.

          I think what happens at immigration when I return will depend largely on whether Ebola spreads in Mali or is contained – if they start grouping it together with Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. If it spreads widely, I may end up revising my plans to avoid Mali or limit my time there solely to avoid the possibility of being quarantined when I return (not out of fear of Ebola). Right now, 3 states are implementing mandatory quarantines for health care workers who had direct contact with Ebola patients, but “monitoring” for other travelers. My fear is that as people continue to overreact, they’ll up it to a quarantine for any travelers. But if Ebola doesn’t continue to spread in Mali, it shouldn’t be an issue.

          Most of my friends are pretty smart and realize the risk is very very low. 🙂

  4. I think you’re right that the risk of contracting ebola as a tourist in Mali is indeed low, and I think you’re right to continue this trip. That said, I’ve only experienced Mali’s healthcare decades ago, but I suspect it hasn’t improved a great deal, and I think your expectation that Mali — with a myriad possible exposures, a frail economy and a weak healthcare system — can do what Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, did, and control the spread of ebola by tracking and isolating all possible contacts may be optimistic. Enjoy the trip – and thanks for the risk factor numbers, which I’m sure will be helpful for others contemplating travel to the region at this time.

    1. Agree that their health care system and resources pale compared to Nigeria’s. But also cautiously optimistic that at least they seem to have caught this initial case and are doing what they can to monitor the people she came in closest contact with before it spreads further, whereas when the virus first appeared in Guinea, Sierra Leone, etc. there seemed to be a lag before they even realized it was Ebola. The WHO is already sending a team in as well to assist. Even if it does spread, though, the risk to travelers is very low.

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