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Volume, year and issue: summer  2006
issue 12.1

MIT Medical's travel health services can be the first step to safe and healthy travel

Chart an itinerary, get a passport, buy tickets, check government travel advisories… Embarking on international travel can be both time consuming and complex.

Now imagine planning 40 such trips at one time.

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For MIT's Sean Gilbert and Debra Aczel, it's all in a day's work. Gilbert oversees the MISTI-China Program, which arranges summer or longer-term internship and employment opportunities in China for undergraduate, graduate, and graduating students in science and engineering. Participating students leave for China at the end of the school year and spend the summer, or as long as six months to a year, working for Chinese companies and universities. Aczel is program administrator of MIT's Terrascope program for freshmen, now in its fourth year. Part of MIT's Earth System Initiative, Terrascope students participate in the same core classes as other first-year students but also work on developing solutions to a specific, complex, real-world problem through additional cross-disciplinary coursework, special projects, and, at the end of the year, a week of fieldwork. "In the first year of the program, students focused on the ecological systems of the rainforest and traveled to the Brazilian Amazon," Aczel explained. In subsequent years, students have traveled to Alaska, the Galapagos Islands, and, most recently, to Chile.

For Gilbert and Aczel, health concerns are a big part of each year's travel planning and preparation, and both say their programs' collaboration with MIT Medical has been crucial. "As soon as we know where we're going, we talk to Medical" Aczel says. "An MIT Medical clinician does a group presentation on health concerns for that particular country, and then schedulers set up a series of clinics, so all the students can be seen and get the immunizations they need, based on a review of their medical records and our destination. When our students leave for their field work, they're not only prepared medically, they're also armed with knowledge about the precautions they need to take while in the field."

"MIT Medical's travel health clinicians are pleased to offer organized informational sessions for any MIT group traveling to a single destination," emphasizes internist Howard Heller, M.D., a specialist in infectious diseases and one of MIT Medical's group of travel health clinicians. "It works really well for everyone in a group to hear the same information at the same time before coming in for their individual visits."

Individualized advice and more

In addition to working with large groups traveling to a single destination, MIT Medical's travel health clinicians provide advice, immunizations, and specialized medications to hundreds of individuals and families every year. "International travel is a normal part of life for many members of our community," says nurse practitioner Janice McDonough, A.P.R.N., B.C. "And health-related preparations are as important as any other aspect of the travel-planning process."

Heller agrees. "When we travel, we may expose ourselves to infections for which we have no natural immunity," he notes.

Making a travel health appointment

Heller suggests that individuals make travel health appointments six to eight weeks prior to initiating travel. "The sooner people come in, the better, especially if we need to give vaccines," he explains. "Most vaccines take at least two weeks to become effective, and some—like vaccines for Japanese encephalitis or rabies—require a series of three shots given over the course of a month.

"When patients call for appointments, they just need to tell the secretary that it's for travel advice," Heller says. "That way they'll automatically be scheduled with one of the travel health clinicians. Using Patient Online to make an appointment can make the process even smoother," Heller adds. "Simply request an appointment with 'any provider, internal medicine,' and, on the next page, check off 'travel immunization' as the reason for your visit, specify the countries you will be visiting, and, in the 'comments' field, let us know the dates you will be traveling and any additional concerns you might have. This gives us a chance to assemble necessary information before your visit."

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Ta'er Si Temple
A group of MISTI-China Program students visit the Ta'er Si Temple in Qinghai Province, China, on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.

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