South Africa Safari with Diabetes


In a few days, our family is leaving on a trip halfway around and down toward the bottom of the world—my Mom is taking us on a safari in South Africa to mark her seventieth birthday. Most of me can’t wait for the trip. But the diabetes-mom part of me is anxious. What if I forget some of Bisi’s diabetes supplies? What if they get lost or stolen? What if she gets sick while we’re gone? How much of a toll will it take on her A1C for us to have so little control over what she eats for almost three weeks? (When we’re at home and Mark and I are in control of what we serve Bisi, her blood sugars are good. When we’re out and about and she’s choosing from menus offering chicken nuggets, fries, and ice cream…not so much.)

The list of anxieties goes on. In fact, my mom picked South Africa as a destination because, of the countries in Africa, it has some of the best and most accessible medical care. I checked in with Bisi’s diabetes nurse for her advice on the trip. She mentioned a list of things that can throw someone’s blood sugar off: a long plane trip, a time change, the stress of travel, different food, illness. Her advice: “Check her blood sugar often, and accept the fact that her numbers are going to be a little wacky.” On planes specifically, she said to be cautious about bolusing, since last time we flew Bisi ended up in the low 40s (for no apparent reason) by the time we were picking up our rental car. Luckily, she recognized she was low and asked to be tested, since it wasn’t a time I normally would have checked her. After reading Melissa Lee’s piece on air bubbles in insulin pumps while flying, I wondered if Bisi’s low was caused by this phenomenon. Maybe this is something pump makers and doctors should warn their patients about? At any rate, it will be good to be doing this trip, which involves many flights, with a CGM.

Aside from the precautions all four of us will take for the trip—malaria pills, typhoid and hepatitis vaccinations, bringing along antibiotics and pedialyte packets just in case we get an intestinal bug—for Bisi we have also gotten a prescription for Zofran, an anti-nausea drug in case she starts throwing up and we can’t control it. Though it’s now wintertime in South Africa, I also got a Frio, a water-activated insulin cooling pack so we don’t need to rely on refrigeration. And I’m planning on bringing a range of light-weight reliable snacks to have on hand, along with some powdered sweet juice mix, since I doubt we’ll be wanting to carry cartons of juice around. Does anyone have any other advice or useful tips for a trip like this one? If so, please send it along.

I know that the attentions of Bisi and her brother will be focused on the animals we hope to see on the trip—lions, leopards, elephants, meerkats, cheetahs, and more. And I’m hoping that I can get all of my worrying out of the way now, so my focus, too, will be on enjoying and experiencing the journey. 

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4 years ago

Great article. How was your trip? I am leaving soon for Tanzania with my 10 year old. Dx 3 weeks ago. It’s overwhelming. Can I ask how did you keep unopened insulin cold. I have frio but that’s more room temp. Long plane ride and I don’t want the extra insulin to go bad.

Katie Bacon
Katie Bacon
8 years ago

Great advice, thank you!

Paul Baker
8 years ago

Hi Katie, South Africa is my home, and I a living with type 1 diabetes. Your research is correct as South Africa has some of the best diabetes care in the world, but it depends on where you go. If you have any issues which I hope that you don’t; I would contact the Center of Diabetes and Endocrinology. They have affiliated doctors across the country, a hot line, and will be able to offer you the best advice. I personally use them. Here is their link.   You are also more than welcome to contact me if you… Read more »

8 years ago

It sounds like you have it under control. The frio is great. I haven’t been to SA but I have traveled a lot in central and south america and I would say test often – even at times you wouldn’t usually.  I use a CGM but find knowing my numbers is the best tool I have,  Also, not sure what your dr recommends but I aim for a slightly higher target range when traveling to avoid lows,  It can be  helpful to identify contact info for recommended drs and hospitals near where you will be so that if something happens… Read more »

Jennifer Jacobs
8 years ago

Katie, I was in SA a few years ago. The long flight and time difference will make things tough in the beginning. But have Bisi test often and she should be okay within a day or so.  

On a non-diabetes note… dress in layers! SA Winter is nothing like Winter in our parts. It’s warm-ish during the day and cool at night.

I can understand why you’re anxious. It’s a big trip! If you want some contact numbers in case of an emergency, e-mail me and I can give you more info. 

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