As students plan for their international adventures over break and for study abroad in the spring, they have more to concern themselves with than a budget and packing list. Despite the excitement of international travel, students’ lifestyle changes when abroad leave them susceptible to picking up illnesses.
With less than a week left of classes, students participating in study abroad programs in spring 2019 have received assignments. Though the university offers planning guides for the semester for a range of topics including health and safety, a study published in the Journal of Travel Medicine Sept. 15 revealed many U.S. students studying abroad contract diseases.
Boston University professors Davidson Hamer and Elizabeth Barnett contributed to the study that revealed that the number of U.S. students studying abroad has tripled over the last two decades. In addition, the number of students traveling to “resource-limited countries” has increased as a whole.
The study examined 432 students who studied abroad and came home with various illnesses, some of which were preventable.
BU’s study abroad website suggests students assess their mental and physical health before leaving for the semester, check with practitioners that they have necessary vaccines and look into their insurance policies.
Hamer, a Boston University professor of global health and medicine, emphasized the importance that students ensure they have proper vaccinations before travelling. Three students in the study contracted vaccine-preventable diseases, including typhoid and hepatitis A.
Hamer warned that the two vaccines for typhoid fever aren’t perfect, so people could still contract the disease. Yet vaccinated individuals have much lower odds of contraction, he said, as the vaccine provides around 70 percent protection.
Other vaccines are considered very effective, Hamer explained.
“For hepatitis A, we have a very effective vaccine that’s 95 to 100 percent protective, so if you have the vaccine, you’re almost completely unlikely to get hepatitis A,” Hamer said.
However, the most common diseases students contracted were gastrointestinal infections, also known as “traveler’s diarrhea,” and dermatologic skin problems, according to Hamer.
Upper-respiratory infections are also common among student travelers, according to Barnett, a professor of pediatrics at Boston University.
“Diarrhea and upper-respiratory are both very common among students and hard to prevent,” Barnett said. “Students are at a time in their life where they like doing adventurous things, and these may include taking culinary adventures, which may cause diarrheal disease.”
According to Barnett, students are especially at risk for diseases or injuries while abroad because of their exploratory and active lifestyle habits and relatively low budgets.
“It could include anything from high-risk sports to hiking in remote areas to travelling on rickety vehicles,” Barnett said. “I think it’s things like this that generally put students at a greater risk than a family that’s maybe travelling and staying at a resort.”
According to Hamer, about 7 percent of the students studied also had diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, such as malaria or dengue fever.
Malaria is preventable by simply taking an effective malaria medicine, Hamer said. Dengue fever, however, is not preventable, and there are no known treatments. Hame said the best way for students to avoid it is to avoid mosquito bites and protect themselves from mosquitos.
Two of the students in the study also contracted HIV while abroad.
“The risk is much higher in a lot of other countries for common sexually transmitted infections,” Hamer said. “But also with unprotected sex, there’s a risk of HIV infection.”
Barnett said the likelihood of contracting a disease is higher in less affluent countries, specifically in the Indian subcontinent and parts of Asia, Africa and Central and South America.
If hygiene is poor, clean water access is limited, and adherence to food safety is not strict, Barnett said, then contracting and transmitting diseases is easier and therefore more common.
“The best thing to see is either a student health specialist that knows about international travel or a travel medicine specialist to go through an itinerary-specific evaluation of risk factors,” Hamer said. “Then, based on that, learn about measures that can help reduce your risk … such as special vaccinations or medicines that might be appropriate.”
Ashley Nuñez, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, studied abroad in London, United Kingdom, and Geneva, Switzerland, last summer and said she was aware of potential health risks she faced by traveling abroad.
“I considered the possibility of contracting sicknesses heavily because I have a family history of illnesses, but it’s something I deal with already, so I just figured I deal with it while abroad,” Nuñez said. “I took Vitamin D supplements every single day and drank a shot of apple cider vinegar to try to help my immune system.”
Barnett also discouraged the consumption of any alcohol or drugs that can make students more vulnerable to violence or uninformed decisions in locations that they may be unfamiliar with.
“Have a wonderful adventure, but a safe one,” Barnett said.