Students abroad warned of potential health risks, Zika

When many Loyola students think about studying abroad, they envision a time full of adventures, opportunities and limited responsibilities. One concern they might put on the back burner? Preparing for health emergencies abroad.

Health issues have often been a global cause for concern. Last year the 21-month-long Ebola crisis made headlines. This year, the recent Zika virus outbreak has caught travelers’ attention.

The Zika virus is a disease spread by infected mosquitoes, with symptoms including fever, red or sore eyes, joint pain, rash and headache, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While the virus is not new, the number of people infected with Zika has largely increased, especially countries in South America and Central America, according to the CDC. Currently, there is no vaccine or cure for Zika.

When problems such as these occur, it is important for Loyola and its students abroad to work together to take necessary precautions, according to Jennifer Engel, director of the Office for International Programs.

“It’s really … a partnership between the student and the advisor [and] the Office for International Programs, to help prepare students before they go [abroad],” said Engel.

Senior international studies major Tom Czejka experienced firsthand the consequences of disregarding health precautions when he studied abroad in Belize in January.

This winter program in Belize involved trips through the rainforest, in which students were warned of an insect called a botfly, according to Czejka, 21. The insect lays eggs on a host such as a mosquito or tick, which can then transfer the eggs to humans. Czejka said he noticed that he had a bump on his head a week after he returned to Chicago and went to the emergency room; he had two botflies surgically removed from his head.

Czejka said he blamed the incident on his decision to not wear a hat or use bug spray as the Loyola professor and the tour guides on the trip advised students to do.

“Loyola does a really good job preparing us for … what can occur, especially depending on what region you go to,” said Czejka. “It’s just on the student to actually go through with it. Some days I didn’t want to wear bug spray, so I got bitten. It was my fault.”

The Office for International Programs provides basic health and safety information at mandatory pre-departure study abroad orientations. The office also issues links to health information for the different countries students visit and encourages students to read more about these issues before departing, according to Engel. Additionally, students are required to enroll in the Cultural Insurance Services  International insurance policy through Loyola before traveling abroad.

Each study abroad location poses different health risks, so there are various precautions taken depending on the program, Engel explained. The Loyola Study Abroad 2015 Handbook states that students should “check with reliable authorities … to find out what vaccinations are currently recommended for [their] program site.”

Sophomore Rocio Siman, who is currently studying abroad in France, said that despite the resources Loyola provides, she still felt unprepared for health issues before going abroad.

“I think [Loyola] could do better,” said Siman, 20, an international business major. “Regarding insurances, they do [well], but I would have liked for them to prepare me more on health issues regarding the country I was coming to.”

Loyola focused on discussing its mandatory health insurance for studying abroad and did not talk about much else, according to Siman. She said she was also unaware that she had to buy another insurance policy through her exchange school in addition to the one Loyola provides.

Siman is an international student from El Salvador, a country with about 6,000 suspected cases of the Zika virus since November, BBC reported. She said she does not personally know anyone who has contracted the virus and is not very concerned it will affect her family, as it is more of an issue for people who cannot afford treatment.

Once students are abroad, the Office for International Programs monitors the programs surrounding areas to keep students updated on any potential risks, Engel said.

Now, as the World Health Organization declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern for the Zika virus on Feb. 1, Engel said students abroad that are near affected areas have been sent information on the Zika virus.

The main victims of the recent Zika outbreaks are pregnant women and their unborn children. The virus has been linked to increased cases of microcephaly, a birth defect in which an infant’s head is smaller than usual, which can lead to health problems and developmental disabilities, according to the CDC. While most students abroad are not pregnant or planning to become pregnant, Engel said, all students planning to study abroad have still been told the symptoms and health risks.

The Office for International Programs also provided students abroad with prevention measures, which include wearing long-sleeve shirts and pants and staying in air-conditioned buildings to avoid mosquitoes.

If the Zika virus or any other health risk ever posed a huge threat to students abroad, Engel said Loyola would possibly relocate the students or have them return to the United States and study abroad at a later date.

In cases of individual health emergencies, Engel advises students abroad to get help from on-site staff, who will then contact the Office for International Programs. The office then calls the insurer, who provides the affected student with options of places to go for medical treatment, explained Engel.

Sophomore Maura Partridge, who is currently studying abroad at the John Felice Rome Center, has not personally experienced any medical emergencies. However, she said Loyola could prep students better on how to handle those situations, given how different Italy’s health care policy is from the United States.

“I think it would have been nice if we would have had a little bit more information about how the health care system works in Italy,” said Partridge, a 20-year-old ad/PR major. “We were kind of just told, ‘here … get this health insurance’ and I don’t really understand the benefits or what it does work for or what it doesn’t.”

Engel said that the Office for International Programs educates students on health precautions, but it is up to students to follow such advising and do research.

“The responsibility lies with the student to follow through on … recommendations,” said Engel.

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