Risk aside, students are abroad

Recent findings show serious health risks in countries where U students still study abroad.

Risk aside, students are abroad

Jessie Bekker

University of Minnesota students are evacuated from multiple learning abroad programs every year because of health issues, like serious illnesses.

At least one student is sent home at the request of a health professional while abroad each year, despite health and safety policies established by the University that aim to inform students of the potential health risks involved with traveling.

Some countries pose more health hazards than others, according to a health risk map released by the International SOS — a company that tracks such occurrences online — earlier this year. The map rates each country from low- to extreme-risk based on areas’ standards of medical care, access to prescriptions and presence of disease.

The University’s Learning Abroad Center offers programs in 27 of the more than 60 countries considered high- and extreme-risk by ISOS standards, which are set by a panel of medical directors.

The center’s associate director, Sheila Collins, said the University uses the map as an additional resource for tracking international health risks, though reports from organizations like the U.S. Department of State, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization are more seriously considered.

“There’s so many different lists, and even within those, countries will be split up,” she said.

More than 40 percent of the medical cases the organization documented for its 2015 map occurred in high- or extreme-risk countries, a percentage significantly higher than the 2010’s less than 25 percent, ISOS medical director Doug Quarry said in a statement.

Most countries categorized as high-risk have basic emergency and dental services, and limited access to prescription drugs, while extreme-risk countries usually have none of those resources.

Serious infectious diseases are common in both types of countries, and most medical issues in those areas require evacuation so patients can receive adequate medical attention.

The University requires students to take an online orientation that highlights health and safety risks before they travel abroad. The school also provides students with an online travel guide that includes health information specific to the country they’re traveling to. Students also must be covered under an international University insurance policy to travel abroad.

Management information systems junior Keaton Bronston, traveled to Venezuela last spring with 18 other students. He said he felt the Learning Abroad Center prepared him well for travelng to an area with a potential health risk, like inadequate drinking water.

“A lot of the information from the LAC helped me be prepared for what I should do as far as staying healthy and staying away from certain health risks,” he said.

Though Bronston drank only purified water from a gallon-sized jug, and said he was careful not to eat food from street vendors during his semester abroad, he was rushed to a doctor after showing symptoms of a common cold. He said the urgency behind his need for medical care made him feel safe.

Still, University officials say they are in no position to promise completely safe travels for every student.

Stacey Tsantir, University director of International Health, Safety and Compliance, said while the school does its best to prepare students for their experiences abroad, school officials are unable to monitor the students’ health once they cross international borders.

“We don’t make sure students are healthy abroad — that’s impossible,” she said.

Despite the risk ISOS says is present in some countries, Collins said she believes the University is doing an adequate job of ensuring students’ safety.

“We work very hard to prepare students the best way we can,” she said. “We do a lot.”

Bronston said the ratings would not deter him from traveling to Venezuela or other high-risk countries in the future.

“As long as you’re well prepared and know what to expect, you’re fine to travel where you please,” he said.