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Background. Every year several hundred Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) volunteers are placed in developing countries where they live and work among the local population. This study analyzes the risk and problems encountered by VSO volunteers overseas.

Methods. Information was collected from 219 returned VSO volunteers (out of 609; response rate 36%) recruited in the United Kingdom, using a self-administered questionnaire. During the period April 2006 to March 2007 volunteers were given a questionnaire by the VSO medical unit in London with a return envelope.

Results. Diarrhea was the most prevalent problem (79.9%), especially for the younger volunteers. Skin and dental problems were next most prevalent. More than one in six had experienced accidents and nearly one-fourth acts of aggression (including verbal) or violence. Most (87.5%) lived in regions with mosquito-borne diseases, 11.6% of these had smear positive malaria. Of all volunteers, 11.0% had placed themselves at risk of HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Unprotected sexual intercourse (45.0%) and split condoms (30.0%) were the main sexual health risk factors. Just over one-fourth of volunteers reported ongoing medical/psychological problems on return, the most common being diarrhea (25.0%), skin disease (15.4%), gynecological problems (13.5%), and injuries (9.6%).

Conclusion. Volunteers experience a range of health problems during and after their placement in the developing world. Our study shows the importance of (1) predeparture health preparation of volunteers and (2) medical care and advice for volunteers. This advice is also important for travelers in similar conditions such as those visiting relatives, long-term backpackers, and students working in or traveling to developing countries. Further research is needed to help explain some of the findings and study ways of preventing accidents and illness.