The Nile River is the life blood of Egypt. It is the longest river in the world, flowing over 6,600 kilometres throughout Africa. For thousands of years it has provided a source of irrigation to turn the dry, desert landscape into lush, agricultural land. Today, it is also a important source of irrigation and also an important transportation and trade route, as well as tourist attraction. 95% of Egyptians live along the banks or within a few kilometres of the Nile and it is easy to see how the Egyptians have come to rely so heavily on it. We loved travelling along the Nile but would not recommend swimming in it (like we did) or you may get infected with a parasite called schistosomiasis.
Sailing the Nile on a Felucca
Spending a day and night sailing on a traditional Egyptian sailboat (a felucca) is a highlight of many Egyptian holidays and it was definitely a great experience for us as well.
I’ve shared our entire experience about travelling on a felucca over on my review of the Egypt Adventure Intrepid tour article (if you’re interested in reading more about it).
There’s no better way to appreciate the beauty of the Nile and it’s importance to Egyptians then by sailing along it on a felucca.
Swimming in the Nile – (Don’t do it)
After a few hours sailing along the Nile, we pulled up to the shore for lunch and then had the option to have a swim.
The water was clear and refreshing. From what we could see it looked clean and as we were travelling in summer, the water was so tempting. Half our group decided to swim (including us).
I visited my GP before this trip to update my vaccinations and she told me that if we swam in fresh water we would need to come and get some tablets afterwards. Dan’s GP told him nothing and one of my best friends who travelled to Egypt just before us, was also not warned of the risks.
Those tablets that my GP told me about were it turns out, to treat schistosomiasis. Schistosomiasis is a parasite you can get from swimming in many fresh water places in Africa (including the Nile) and I was unlucky enough to get it.
Isn’t there Crocodiles in the Nile?
In the past, crocodiles swam the full length of the Egyptian Nile. Due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1960, the majority of crocodiles are now in the man-made Lake Nasser, not roaming free in the Nile.
So no, you won’t get eaten by a croc if you swim in the Nile.
How did I know that I had Schistosomiasis?
Schistosomiasis enters your skin when you come into contact with infected water (even just paddling your toes can be enough to become inflected). Apparently it is more likely to occur in still than flowing water.
Most people have no symptoms when they are first infected, however some develop itchy skin or a rash within a few days. I got symptoms pretty quickly – the next morning I woke up and was really itchy under one arm and along my bra line. For about a week we though the rash was either swimmer’s itch or a heat rash because Egypt was ridiculously hot and I was wearing more conservative clothing than I normally would be at home in the heat.
The rash would come and go over the next week or so as we continued travelling through Egypt and then onto Jordan. We reached Budapest about 10 days later and Budapest was COLD (it was late September) and the rash didn’t stop. By then we assumed it was no longer heat rash and from all of our ‘Dr Googling’ we came to the conclusion that we thought I would be okay to wait until we got home in a few more weeks to get tested and treated. I dealt with it through Budapest, Austria and Cyprus before we flew home at the end of our trip.
The rash was predominately under my arms, on my arms, legs, stomach, breasts and back. Thankfully it didn’t spread to my face or my neck and some days it was barely visible, whereas other days my health anxiety was through the roof due to how prominent the rash was and I had irrationally convinced myself that I was dying.
In addition to the rash, I also had a general feeling of not being that well and an upset stomach. It’s hard to know if the diarrhea and nausea were related to that or whether they were just from having travelled through the Middle East for three weeks.
Getting tested & diagnosed with Schistosomiasis
I’d made an appointment with a doctor at my GP practice for the day after we got home. My rash, of course, was minimal on the day of my appointment but thankfully I had taken some photos from days when it was bad.
My GP wanted to do tests before giving me the antibiotics (whereas Dan’s GP just gave him the antibiotics without doing any tests). I had to do a blood, urine and stool sample and both the blood and stool sample showed schistosomiasis and the stool sample also showed that I had picked up a form of gastroenteritis – Lucky me!
I was given two scripts for antibiotics and as Praziquantel, the medication for schistosomiasis needed to be ordered in, I took the gastro ones first to deal with that. About a week later, the Praziquantel medication came in, and it was three doses of 20mg per kg taken 4 hours apart.
This medication was STRONG. Both Dan and I felt dizzy, nauseous and unwell for about two days on the medication and both needed time off work – however as it was so strong I think it would have killed any of the little snails inside me which I was very happy about!
Schistosomiasis is the second most prevalent tropical disease in the world, after Malaria. It can be easily treated with medication, but can cause long-term health problems when left untreated and can damage kidneys, liver, bladder and even get into the spinal cord and brain just to name a few.
Many people delay treatment because they do not have any symptoms or the symptoms take a long time to appear. If you have spent time in or near the water in any of the countries where schistosomiasis is prevalent, then it is worth getting tested when you get home.
Contact with Intrepid Travel
Once I’d received the results of my tests, I emailed Intrepid customer relations as I thought they should get in touch with everyone who had travelled on the same tour as us to advise them that they may also want to get tested.
I also asked if they should reconsider the information they provide on their website as well as what information the tour guides provide in regards to encouraging people to swim in the Nile on the felucca leg of their trips.
I was really impressed by their customer service as they got back to me quickly and advised that although the local operations manager said that the water where the felucca travels is fast flowing which usually prevents parasites (as they are normally more prevalent in still water) that they would still be advising all tour leaders of the risks. In addition, they would update the information on their website to note the possible risks of swimming in the Nile.
I have checked and seen that they have since removed the following information from their website:
Swimming is safe (and encouraged). The section of water between Aswan and Luxor is clean and taking a dip is a real highlight.
and replaced it with this:
SWIMMING IN THE NILE
Your Felucca Captain my suggest swimming in the Nile. Whilst we recognise that our Captains know the best and safest spots to swim, this activity is not recommended because of the risk of exposure to bacterial and other infections. Please refer to the health risks section of your countries Travel Advisory Service.
I was grateful that Intrepid took my email seriously, and promptly took actions to ensure the health and safety of their travellers.
Did you hear about recent case involving a British Tourist?
Not long after we had been treated, I read about a recent case where a British Tourist had become really ill from schistosomiasis and almost died! So in comparison to this, I was really lucky however it is really scary to think about just how bad it could have been.
Would I do it again?
No, knowing what I do now and having dealt with the shorter term side effects of Schistomiasis for around six weeks, I would definitely not swim in water where there was the risk of contracting this parasite.
I understand that when you travel there is a higher chance of being exposed to various illnesses and health risks (and have had my fair share of them over my years of travelling). However, had I done my research before this trip then I wouldn’t have swam in the Nile, however hot it was.
If and when we return to Africa and visit other waterways where schistosomiasis is rife, we’ll be sure to book hotels with pools!
Whilst it didn’t ruin our trip, it definitely put a dampener on it as I was stressed and upset a LOT more than I usually am. A quick dip in the Nile is not worth risking your health over.
Have you been to Egypt and swam in the Nile?
DISCLAIMER: We are by no means medical professionals and this is not intended to be medical advice. This is just our experience of swimming in the Nile, unfortunately getting infected and being treated. Please do not rely upon our experience or information and ensure you contact your doctor when you return from your trip.