Traveling to Benin as a Research Subject – Early Thoughs

Beninese vodun ceremony

Attending to ETVAX Vaccine Research

I’m attending to an ETVAX diarrhea vaccine research as a test subject. I’m traveling to Benin for two weeks with about 20 other Finnish test subjects. As foreigners, we haven’t been prone to the ETEC bacteria that causes the death of millions of African children every year. I know, this is an interesting way to spend my Christmas holidays.

Altogether, 800 Finnish adults are sent to Africa for this research. There have been over 600 participants before us and a few hundred will follow during the next months. We are asked to give stool and blood samples before and after the trip as well as once during the trip. If I get diarrhea, I’ll need to give more samples.

Everything is voluntary, obviously. I can quit at any time if I decide so. If I cancel very late, I’d still need to pay the flights and accommodation. The cost is about 1 600 euros, but as I’m under 30 years old, it’s half the price. Sounds expensive, but well, try find a cheaper package trip to West Africa.

Isn’t It Risky?

When I tell someone about the travel plan, people call me brave or say that they wouldn’t go because of the risk of getting diarrhea. At least, they wouldn’t pay for the trip. For some reason, more women than men are attending to the research. In my experience, men seem to fear the diarrhea part even more than women.

For a Scandinavian, the chances of getting diarrhea when you travel to Africa, are high. There are plenty of bacterias and viruses. The hygiene is not at the level of what we are used to. ETEC is only one of the dangers in Africa. At least, I’ve got a 50 % chance of having a potentially protective vaccine against ETEC virus. Besides, I’m traveling with a bunch of medical experts who monitor my health during the trip. If anything happens, I can trust that Finnish medics and scientists will help me and take me to a hospital if needed. Therefore, I think I have fewer risks than someone traveling to West Africa on her own.

The Vaccine

Half of the attendees are given the vaccine and half placebo. Even our medical care-takers don’t know at which group I’m at. The vaccine is in the form of a drink. I’ve had two cups of something now before the trip.

There have been pre-tests for the vaccine. The early results are positive. No major side effects have been noted. I haven’t felt anyhow special after getting the vaccine. I filled a couple of surveys before the trip and I had to report any side effects that may have occurred. I also needed to inform the organizers about where I’ve previously traveled as certain locations would have prevented me from attending.

In case the vaccine is proven to work and be safe, it will be sold for tourists and with a far cheaper price to kids in Africa. More people die of diarrhea in Africa than in wars, for example. (See Ripulireissu documentary at YLE if you are in Finland.) Majority of these are kids because the child’s body is less competent to handle the liquid imbalance.

Reasons to Attend

Adventure – The travel itself is obviously interesting and fun. I’m pretty fed up to the Finnish darkness by now. I can’t wait to see the sun again.

Unique Experience – If not for the research, when would you travel to Benin? Do you even know where it is? Have you ever heard of such place? I hadn’t. Well… it’s here.

Benin is a West African oddly shaped country.
Yes, I know the shape of Benin reminds us of…

Ethics – There aren’t many more ethical ways and reasons to travel to Africa than attending to research which is supposed to lower the child mortality rate and therefore improve the living standards in Africa. Flights pollute, so traveling only for sunshine and sea is not necessarily the best choice for the planet. Not to mention hunting trips to kill African predators. (According to a Finnish documentary, the predators are protected – except if you are a rich white person who has money to pay). The organizers of the research trip have good intentions. As far as I’m concerned, they have tried their best to communicate with the locals and bring us there with the least possible problems for the local community. They encourage us to donate for the local community along with a local orphans house and help to distribute the donations as well as they can.

Thoughts on Safety

You can live your life locked inside of four walls but is that worth it? You aren’t even safe there, as most accidents happen at home. Traveling is rarely as risky as Finns think. As a Finn, I’m privileged to live in the safest corner of the globe. However, people do live a normal life in foreign countries as well. If you don’t do anything with your life, you for sure risk your mental health. Safety is a great goal, but in itself, it rarely makes anyone happy.

Do you stop doing things because of fear? What would I get to tell my grandchildren one day if I did? That their grandmother never did anything? That she didn’t take a chance to travel to West Africa because of the risk of diarrhea? This blog would be boring to read too.

Life is life anywhere on the planet. People are people anywhere. There are risks no matter where you are.

 

NOTE

This article is published with a long delay. The travels went well and I was one of the rare ones who didn’t get sick during or after the trip. If you are interested in hearing more about the trip, please let me know on the comments, and I’ll write an article for you.

 

About the trip elsewhere online:

More about the research at Tutkimusmatka official website.

Someone else’s experience on the same trip.

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