Snakebites, falls from the back of a game drive vehicle, asthma attacks, heart problems, close-up encounters with any of the big five or putting a foot wrong in the African veld can have disastrous consequences for a tourist in the middle of their safari adventure in South Africa.
According to statistics gathered by Dr Simon King, at least 13 people died last year in tourist destinations in the Limpopo/Mpumalanga lowveld alone. More than 40 serious medical emergencies such as multiple fractures, head injuries and paralysis cases also happened to lowveld holiday makers in the same time, and King believes this is an under-representation of the statistics.
Until now, emergency medical care for these situations has been fragmented and hampered by the remoteness of the locations where the incidents occur. Now King is heading up a new initiative that plans to provide a holistic solution to problem of dealing with medical emergencies in remote, inaccessible areas.
The Africa Safari and Adventure Focussed Emergency Team (Africa Safe-T) has been born out of a year's information gathering by the Wilderness Emergency Programme on what services are necessary to help save lives in bush emergencies.
Their first startup site is located in the Sabi-Sand Wildtuin, where a 4x4 converted to deal with medical emergencies and a paramedic are standing by to render emergency treatment to tourists or staff in a medical crisis. A doctor and a flight nurse are also waiting in the wings, with coordination of rescue efforts being carried out by an administrative centre based in Hoedspruit.
King says, "We want to perform medical services on site. Studies show that it's not the time that it takes to get to a hospital that affects outcomes in wilderness situations, what matters is the time in between.
"Operating in wilderness environments is very different to working in cities and Africa Safe-T paramedics are intensely trained in skills like fieldcraft, 4x4 use, dangerous game behaviour and wilderness medical techniques to enable them to work effectively and safely in these environments."
To ensure that the best possible care is given, not only is the paramedic on standby, but the Africa Safe-T company runs special training courses for all the guides that fall under the umbrella of the programme. These training courses place a special emphasis on the exceptional first aid needs that are created in a bush situation, merging international best practice in wilderness medicine with the unique needs of the Africa veld.
Although a certification in first aid is necessary to qualify as a field guide in South Africa, only generic first aid courses are available. Elsewhere in the world the field of wilderness emergency medicine is more advanced and field guides undergo first aid training that is tailored to the needs of the guiding industry.
King is currently working on drawing up unit standards for the National Qualification Framework that will describe how field guides should be trained to render first aid in the bush. "I am personally committed to seeing our South African tourism destinations prepared and trained to international standards and backed by an effective service in a wilderness emergency situation."
King has also teamed up with the Kruger National Park to help draw up an emergency response plan and a medical procedure manual for the newly established Olifants River backpacking trail. This trail is unique in the park in that it has no fixed camps for a four-day hike along the banks of the Olifants, and is therefore a higher risk product than the normal wilderness trails in Kruger.
Africa Safe-T has provided the trail with two satellite phones in case of medical emergencies, and will be on hand to help get a response team to any accident as well as providing over-the-phone consultations with a doctor.
The Africa Safe-T company has welded together five key areas of emergency medicine - risk assessment and site preparation, training of guides and other staff, doctor-based services, groundbased paramedics and aeromedical services.
Although the company will use its own 4x4 response vehicles and aircraft, Africa Safe-T will integrate its service with existing service providers like ER24 and International SOS to provide a more comprehensive service.
Although other programmes intended to improve medical care for tourists have fallen by the wayside over the years, King is positive that the Africa Safe-T initiative will be sustainable in the long-term through its research into the specific needs of the industry, its specialised, non-urban design and its multi-pronged approach to dealing with the bodily trauma that the African bush can dish out.