A new study found that many young people volunteering in the developing world are not prepared to deal with the risk of malaria and other foreign diseases. Whether they are not receiving proper information from travel-savvy doctors, or are turning to local healers in poor countries to be treated, health experts are worried about the risks these young college or high school graduates may be faced with during their time volunteering.
German researchers out of the Institute of Occupational and Social Medicine at RWTH Aachen University found that recent graduates aren’t receiving enough medical information and preparation for trips abroad. Researchers found that volunteers who travel to developing countries end up having more illnesses and injuries than people who are simply travelling as tourists. Nearly half of the 153 participants in the study had visited a doctor or hospital during their stay in a developing country in South America, Africa or Asia, whereas only about 8 percent of tourists needed medical attention.
“The problem is that these young people go to countries and experience cultures and they do not have the best information on what is going on around them,” Dr. Thomas Küpper told Reuters. The participants in the study were between the ages of 18 and 30, and they spent some six months or more in a developing country between 2001 and 2006. The most common health issues these participants dealt with included self-treated injuries, headaches, sunburn, diarrhea without fever, and stomach pain.
“The most important message is that these volunteers need to be prepared,” Dr. Atti-La Dahlgren of the Geneva University Hospitals’ Division of International and Humanitarian Medicine in Switzerland, told Reuters. “They are basically coming out of high school and have little or no experience being abroad in developing countries… What worries me…is that it seems like only about half of respondents who went to Africa received correct information about the risks and treatments of malaria.”
In a survey, the researchers asked what sort of advice the participants received before going on their travels abroad. 56 percent of volunteers received advice from their family doctor; information about malaria prevention was conflicting and “chaotic,” the authors wrote. Dr. Poh Lian Lim of Tank Tock Seng Hospital in Singapore noted that it was important for young volunteers and travelers to be in contact with a doctor who specialized in travel abroad medicine, rather than just a family doctor. “The average family doctor may not know the ins and outs of being in a place like Ecuador,” Lim told Reuters. “One of the more worrisome parts of the study is that 20 percent of the volunteers relied on local healers for treatment. Seeing a local healer for a tension headache might be okay, but for headache caused by meningitis or malaria, then that’s not okay.”
These volunteers ought to be prepared, because “it is an increasing and positive phenomenon that young people want to have experience doing work in developing countries,” Dahlgren told Reuters.