CDC TravWell App

For vaccination and health advice for volunteering abroad trips, we have always recommended the website of the Centers for Disease Control.

The CDC now has an app for that too. It’s called the CDC’s TravWell app available on iOS and Android.

As the CDC’s web page says, TravWell:

…helps you plan for safe and healthy international travel. Build a trip to get destination-specific vaccine recommendations, a checklist of what you need to do to prepare for travel, and a customizable healthy travel packing list.

The app also lets you store travel documents, keep a record of your medications and immunizations, and set reminders to get vaccine booster doses or take medicines while you’re traveling.

Key Features of TravWell

> Authoritative recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

> During-travel features available offline (no data connection needed)

> Fully customizable to do list and packing list

>Emergency services phone numbers for every destination

Lifehacker recently featured the app and wrote the following:

Different countries around the world have unique foods, styles, and cultures, but they also have their own diseases.

That’s why it’s important you get vaccinated four to six weeks before you travel internationally.

If you’re getting ready to jet set around the world, the Centers for Disease Control’s TravWell app can help you prepare your immune system.

Available for iOS and Android, CDC TravWell gives you clear instruction about what you need based on where you’re going and when.

After downloading the app, you can build a trip that can include multiple destinations.

Then TravWell will give you vaccine requirements and recommendations for each location, as well as a checklist of other things you should do before you take off.

What We Do to Ensure Your Safety Abroad

Here are just a few of the important things Cosmic Volunteers does to make sure you stay healthy and safe on your volunteering program abroad:

24 hour emergency support while

Our Trip Supervisor in the host country, Staff in US, Country Coordinator, and Host Family are available 24 hours.

Safe towns and neighborhoods abroad

We have carefully chosen every town and neighborhood you’ll live in and visit with health and safety considerations in mind foremost. Our staff has lived with many of our local host families.

Prepare you for the experience

Our staff will hold pre-trip sessions covering local health, safety, and cultural knowledge and etiquette. Our Volunteer Handbook has even more detailed information. When you arrive in the host country, our local Country Coordinators will reiterate all of the health and safety information.

Hire reliable, knowledgeable local Country Coordinators. Our local Country Coordinators live in the host country full-time, are fluent in all the local languages, and are experts in hosting foreign volunteers.

Medical Emergency Procedures: Volunteering Abroad

Cosmic Volunteers maintains and adheres to strict emergency policies and procedures.

Our most important objective for the trip is to ensure the health and safety of our volunteers and staff.

The following is our procedure for medical emergencies:

Procedures for Medical Emergency when Volunteering Abroad

The On-Site Coordinator in the host country is responsible for:

1. Attending to the immediate needs of the volunteer(s) / staff involved.

2. For medical emergencies: Transporting volunteer(s) / staff to the nearest clinic/hospital.

3. Contacting local law enforcement officials (as appropriate).

4. Contacting our Coordinator in the U.S. (24 hours).

5. Contacting the volunteer’s embassy in the host country (e.g. The U.S. Embassy for Americans)

Our Coordinator in the U.S. is responsible for the following:

1. Contacting the volunteer’s emergency contact back home (designated before the trip).

2. Contacting the volunteer’s school back home if this is a school-sponsored trip.

3. Contacting law enforcement officials back home (as appropriate).

4. Contacting the volunteer’s insurance provider to coordinate any medical care and transportation.

30,000 International Travelers Got Malaria

Malaria is one of the illnesses that our volunteers ask about the most before going abroad.

Since 2001, the year we started Cosmic Volunteers, we have had two volunteers get malaria. Both cases of malaria happened in Ghana. We got them treatment immediately and they recovered fine.

Malaria Worldwide

First, let’s understand the overall malaria situation worldwide.

The World Malaria Report by the World Health Organization (WHO) is perhaps the most reliable source of information on malaria. They draw on data from 91 countries and areas with ongoing malaria transmission. 

According to the WHO, in 2015:

> There were there were 212 million new cases of malaria worldwide.

> Africa accounted for 90% of cases, followed by the South-East Asia Region (7%) and the Eastern Mediterranean Region (2%).

Malaria Among International Travelers

For tracking malaria among international travelers, the most comprehensive data comes from GeoSentinel

GeoSentinel was initiated in 1995 by the International Society of Travel Medicine (ISTM) with support from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

GeoSentinel is a worldwide communication and data collection network for the surveillance of travel-related morbidity.

Malaria Analysis — 2003-2016

Here are Geo Sentinel’s findings about malaria AFTER international travel from 2003–2016:

> Over 30,000 malaria cases are reported annually among international travellers.

> More than half (53%) were visiting friends and relatives.

> Median age was 37 years.

> 69% were male.

> Most (83%) were exposed in sub-Saharan Africa.

> The median trip duration was 32 days.

> 53% did not have a pre-travel visit.

> More than half (62%) were hospitalized (73% of children).

Preventing Malaria

How to prevent malaria?

Consider taking malaria pills such as Malarone.

More importantly though (IMHO) — Avoid mosquito bites!

When sundown first starts:

> Cover up with long sleeves and pants/pajamas

> Use bug spray with DEET

> Sleep inside a mosquito net

> Spray Listerine in the air and furniture around you

> Burn local charcoal coils whose smoke repels bugs

> Use “Medisoft” body lotion in Ghana


15 Rules of the Road When Volunteering Abroad

Here are 15 “Rules of the Road that we teach our volunteers so that your volunteering trip abroad is a safe and meaningful experience.

1. You must be supervised and escorted at all times – by either our staff or host family (only for volunteers < 16)

2. Always carry contact information on paper for our staff, host family and peers

3. All illnesses, incidents, and accidents MUST be reported immediately to our local Coordinator

4. Only drink bottled or filtered water (never tap water)

5. Do not ignore symptoms like persistent headache, diarrhea, and insomnia

6. Absolutely no swimming under any circumstances (even in hotel pool)

7. Do not isolate yourself (via ear buds, sunglasses, staying in bedroom)

8. Wash your hands frequently (also use hand sanitizer)

9. Use bug spray at night to avoid mosquito bites

10. Watch for pickpockets at ATM’s and tourist areas

11. Do not be flashy with cash, cameras, jewelry etc.

12. Vehicles always have right of way – never assume they will see you or stop for you!

13. Do not ride on motorcycles or in unlicensed taxis/buses

14. Always have your cell phone with you

15. No adventure sports like zip-lining, snorkeling, rock climbing, aerial activities of any kind

Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness can become a problem for travelers around the world.

Travelers joining our volunteer programs in the South American cities of Quito in Ecuador and Cusco in Peru occasionally experience mild symptoms of altitude sickness upon arrival.

Quito’s elevation is 9,300 ft (2,850 m) above sea level, making it the second highest capital city in the world.

Cusco sits at 10,800 ft (3,300 m) above sea level.

Adjust to the high altitude when volunteering abroad:

  • Avoid alcohol
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Eat light, carb-based meals

I’ve flown into Quito several times — the first in 2003 — and been affected each time by the altitude. Especially the first time, I felt very dizzy while walking from the plane to the immigration counter. After a couple days of headaches and mild nausea, I adjusted OK to the altitude each time.

My Students Aren’t Getting Malaria; They’re Getting Pregnant

We get a lot of questions about personal safety from potential volunteers, especially since September 11th, the war in Iraq, and continuing terrorist acts around the world. The reality is that, despite the headlines, it’s still very safe to travel abroad. For Cosmic Volunteers especially, our volunteer areas are very safe, and we’ve never had a serious personal-safety issue in our 3+ year history.

But, what are some of the major safety issues abroad? The following Wall Street Journal article has some answers that may surprise you.


Sex, Drugs and Junior Year Abroad: Doctors Work to Protect Travelers


July 31, 2003

As kids trek through Europe on post-graduation jaunts or plan soul-searching trips to Nepal and junior years abroad, many parents are probably worried about terrorism and mysterious viruses.

They’re nervous about the wrong things. The real scourges of overseas travel are far more mundane: pregnancy, drug use and mental illness. Now, doctors, colleges and youth-travel programs are stepping up their efforts to prevent these problems.

Sure, kids get into trouble with sex and drugs in their dorm rooms, but recent studies have confirmed what travel doctors and educators have long suspected: The risks rise with travel. Removed from friends, family and school and faced with the challenges of a new language and culture, even stable young adults can fall into dangerous behavior.

“My students aren’t getting malaria; they’re getting pregnant,” said Susan Anderson, a travel-medicine doctor at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

In one ongoing study of young travelers to Southeast Asia, 75% said they took drugs during their trip, according to the study’s author, Israel Potasman, head of the infectious-diseases and travel clinic at the Bnai Zion Medical Center in Haifa, Israel.

In another study published in the Journal of Travel Medicine by Dr. Potasman, 11% of young travelers had an episode of psychiatric symptoms, including sleeping disturbances and depression, during their trips, compared with only 2.3% who had sought treatment before travel.

Colleges are focusing more on these tough and often delicate problems because of the soaring popularity of studying abroad. The number of students studying overseas has jumped 55% in the past five years, according to the Institute of International Education in New York. And that doesn’t include the legions of kids taking off on their own trips — a favored choice for jobless graduates who are waiting for the economy to improve.

These days, physicians such as Dr. Anderson send women off with a prescription for pills that can be taken after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy. Princeton University added a feature to its Not-2-Late Web site during the past few years that lets students see what types of emergency contraceptives are available in each country they are visiting.

At the University of Chicago, administrators try to identify students with mental illnesses and then make sure at-risk students have adequate medication. They sometimes even make advance appointments with psychiatrists and therapists at the students’ destinations.

A leading study-abroad program, the Institute for the International Education of Students, has hired 20 new staff members during the past three years, primarily to deal with a surge in health and safety issues (depression and allergies are the top two) among the 3,000 college students it sends overseas each year.

About five years ago, the program had to bring six students home because they had developed severe anorexia and bulimia; it hasn’t had to evacuate any students for eating disorders since the new efforts were put in place.

Of course, travel is a positive experience for most kids. They learn new languages, open up to new cultures and become more self-sufficient.

But doctors say the everyday stress of having to find a place to sleep, eating strange foods, figuring out train schedules and witnessing poverty can be a catalyst for depression, anxiety or an eating disorder.

Doctors also cite a “magical thinking” phenomenon. “The environment is so different that there’s a subconscious feeling that what they do doesn’t really count,” says David R. Shlim, medical director of the Jackson Hole Travel and Tropical Medicine clinic in Wyoming. “So they do stuff they don’t normally do, such as have more casual sex, ride a bike without a helmet or ride a motorcycle while barefoot.”

As young strangers travel together, what Susan McClellan at Tulane University Health Sciences Center calls the “love boat thing” can lead to casual sex. Studies estimate that about 2% to 10% of returning travelers have acquired sexually transmitted infections while abroad.

More troubling, sexual assault is not uncommon during travel: It is one of the top reasons students need medical evacuations during their trips, according to International SOS Assistance Inc., a provider of travel health-insurance policies.

In response, some doctors encourage young women to carry emergency contraceptives in case of sexual assault, though other doctors say that the pills should be used under medical supervision.

Some medical-school students and relief workers get prescriptions for antiretrovirals, pills that can prevent HIV transmission after a potential exposure. Dr. Anderson in Palo Alto also prescribes the medication for women taking extended trips to rural Africa (where HIV rates are high). But the medication is expensive, has serious side effects and needs to be started almost immediately after exposure.

Young people often encounter novel and exotic drugs overseas, and they may be more willing to try these drugs since they carry less of a stigma at home. While most study-abroad programs have long had strict drug policies and pretravel lectures, some schools are enhancing their efforts.

There is little that can be done — beyond preaching common sense — to prevent the No. 1 causes of death and injury during travel: motor-vehicle accidents and drownings. But there are many steps kids and parents can take to prevent health problems abroad.

First, check with your insurance company to make sure coverage applies while you are overseas. You can take out extra insurance from companies such as International SOS or Medjet Assistance to cover emergency medical evacuations.

Also, check with a local U.S. embassy to see where its staff gets medical care. International SOS operates clinics staffed by Western-trained doctors. IJET Travel Risk Management sells country reports that detail safety and health issues and gives information on the best hospitals and clinics.

Young adults and their parents should honestly evaluate their mental health, the stresses they could face, and the support and medication available at their destination. They should also set up an e-mail and phone-support system with friends and family before they leave, so they have a familiar person to turn to.

Check with family doctors, travel specialists or student health services to see if they do e-mail consultations. Many doctors now answer e-mail for patients, often without an extra fee.