U students train in Thailand

A handful of students from the U spent four weeks in Thailand this July, but they weren’t basking on the beach or downing exotic drinks. They went there to be surrounded by infectious diseases.

The students, who are en route to careers in international medicine, went to learn from experts in a country plagued by diseases that could only be found in a developing nation.

Cultural exposure is an important part of the program, said Don Pederson, professor and Utah Physician Assistant Program director.

“Students are getting to see causes of exotic illnesses such as malaria, and drug-resistant tuberculosis,” he said. “And that’s important. But it’s also important to examine the root cause of why these and other diseases are so prevalent in this society.”

This year’s team consisted of three public health students as well as three public assistants and a faculty member from both the Utah Physician Assistant and the Public Health Programs, which have sent faculty and students to developing countries for several years. Members had to pay most or all of their own way to participate, with expenses costing about $2,000.

Participants did not only receive lectures from the faculty but also received fieldwork experience by visiting specialty clinics in and around Bangkok. Dave Laisy said about his experience that “this gave me a great educational experience but also a much enjoyable experience to visit and really see what Thailand is like-the people, the health problems, the economic problems and the social problems. The inner workings, so to speak, of Thailand.”

Audrey Stevenson, a public health doctoral student who participated, said she understood the application to her home state.

“These experts have been identifying and treating diseases that are not common in Utah, but could make an appearance.”

Participants visited a number of sites where researchers are studying the control and treatment of malaria and other emerging and re-emerging insect-bone diseases.

Stevenson said, “This area of study was especially pertinent because of the appearance of West Nile Virus in Utah.”

With the SARS epidemic appearing so rapidly, Stevenson observed that pubic health threats have no boundaries. Air travel makes it possible for diseases to travel abroad more quickly than before.

Han Kim, another faculty member who assisted the students on the trip, said he believes that “international public health is dangerous” at the moment because “there’s a lot of diseases out there that can be controlled.”

Diseases can travel faster than a person expects. “The individual is capable of spreading diseases, often before he is even symptomatic,” Stevenson said.

They also learned about the health problems of women and children in a developing country, including micronutrient deficiencies and occupational health and safety issues that affect factory workers in Thailand.

Before leaving, the team visited a refugee camp near the Myanmar (Burmese) border, giving them the chance to observe the care people receive who have been displaced from their homes.

“The movement of people and products across borders has increased in volume and speed, giving birth to an increased risk of disease transmission,” said George White, professor and director of the Public Health Program. “This global connectedness is a fundamental component in understanding public health in the 21st century. The Thailand experience provides an excellent opportunity for our students to develop essential public health competencies.”

This is the first year the students were able to have the trip count toward an “international elective” course and will receive academic credit toward graduation.

“When PA students travel abroad, they usually do what we call a clinical rotation, where they see patients, but there’s no formal curriculum,” Pederson said. “This international elective is a well-engineered teach and clinical program of study.”

Kim said they hope to have the length of the trip become a semester rather than the four-week period. He said that students are able to interact with Thai professors and help strengthen the collaborations created internationally.

The trip was supported by a grant from the national Physician Assistant Foundation who helped develop the curriculum for physician assistants working internationally with a significant portion geared toward public health issues.

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