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Cornell students put together health kits covering sexual-health needs and problems for women going abroad

When a Cornell University student tried to get help for a vaginal yeast infection in Spain last year, the pharmacist kept thinking she was referring to a foot fungus. Another Cornell student in Poland who feared she was pregnant couldn't understand the Polish instructions for the pregnancy test. Yet another had unprotected sex in Belgium and for five months endured "unbearable stress" not knowing where, or how, to get an HIV test.

"When we got back to Cornell, we realized that so many women who went abroad had health problems that would have been easily treatable in the United States but were problematic for them abroad," says Rachel Margolis, a 2004 Cornell graduate from Philadelphia who is now in a master's program at the London School of Economics.

So Margolis and two other Cornell women students did something about it: They put together a sexual-health travel kit that is now made freely available by Cornell to all of its female undergraduates studying abroad, most of them juniors. Cornell undergraduates typically study in 40 different countries, and about 400 of the almost 600 students who go abroad each year are women. Nationally, almost 105,000 college women study abroad during their years of undergraduate education.

The kit is a small fabric sack holding more than a dozen items, including vaginal yeast infection medication, a key chain with a whistle (to draw attention in an emergency), lubricant, a pregnancy test, 10 condoms and various other products, as well as information brochures on urinary tract infections, HIV/AIDS and other health issues for women studying abroad. In addition, every Cornell woman student traveler receives a link to an online database created by Margolis and Erica Holland, a Cornell senior from Lexington, Mass., that lists contact information for an English-speaking Planned Parenthood affiliate in the country to which they are going.

"We realized that many female students who go abroad lack the resources necessary to take care of their physical health and to make informed decisions regarding their sexual health," added Holland, who will join a panel to discuss the kits at a regional conference of the Association of International Educators in Garden City, N.Y., from Nov. 7 to 9.College women not only must cope with a language barrier to get help for sexual health or gynecological problems, but also cope with different cultural norms for women. And, Holland adds, women abroad become more vulnerable to various infections because of changes in diet, climate and sleep, but getting treatment can become a major problem in a foreign country.

Thanks to hundreds of hours of research and networking by Margolis, Holland and Katherine Belzowski, a 2004 Cornell graduate from Ann Arbor, Mich., funding for the kits has been obtained from a wide group of campus offices, from the university's health center to the dean of students and the vice provost's offices. Student volunteers assemble the kits and a student will be hired each semester to keep information in the kit current, ensure that funding is in place to continue the project and to process evaluations on a Web site that Margolis and Holland will create for women students returning from abroad to fill out.

Work on the kits has had other consequences. Women students attending Cornell Abroad's predeparture meeting now receive specific information about sexual-health needs.

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