Swine Flu and Student Flows

In study abroad, there's been concern about U.S. students contracting the H1N1 virus while abroad; now, there's also concern about them spreading it.
May 12, 2009

More than 50 colleges in the U.S. have canceled summer study abroad programs to Mexico in response to swine flu, affecting an estimated 1,300 students, according to data compiled by the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration. Following an initial wave of cancellations, however, a number of colleges and providers have announced plans to continue with summer study abroad offerings in Mexico, albeit in some cases with modifications.

Ironically, though, the tables have turned. Professionals in the field have begun to fret less about the possibility of American students contracting disease abroad (in Mexico), and more about possible quarantine of American students in foreign countries and about concerns, particularly in parts of Asia, that they will pose a health risk for their hosts. The United States now has more confirmed cases of swine flu, at 2,532, than any other country, including Mexico, which according to the World Health Organization's Monday update, has 1,626 confirmed cases (but has had far more deaths, with 48 compared to three in the United States). In the U.S., the cases have largely been milder than was originally feared.

“The case that we are trying to make with our colleagues, institutions in the region, is this is not a Mexican phenomenon. It is a North American phenomenon mostly,” said Francisco Marmolejo, CONAHEC’s executive director and assistant vice president for Western Hemispheric programs at the University of Arizona.

“I have calls from institutions in other parts of the world … institutions calling me and saying, 'Is it safe to send our students to the United States?' So there is that additional dimension. That’s why again, it is a regional problem that we better address on a regional basis.”

"Three weeks ago there was quite a bit of excitement about what we should do vis-a-vis our students in Mexico," said Brian Whalen, president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad. "Many thought, 'Gee we’ve got to get them away from the situation with the spread of the flu virus.' Now it’s ironic that it seems like most of the cases are in the United States, and there are reports of some other countries around the world feeling anxious about having U.S. citizens or those who have been to the U.S. coming in because of fears of spreading the virus. For me it’s similar to thoughts I have about the economic crisis. That it's global.

“It goes to show also how important it is to keep monitoring situations, discussing what is going on, sharing information and continuing to make plans," Whalen said.

Gonzalo Bruce, director of international programs at East Stroudsburg University, in Pennsylvania, has been doing just that. Last Monday, he polled his colleagues about their reasons for canceling or moving ahead with summer programs in Mexico in order to inform his own university's decision-making process. He found that pertinent factors at colleges that opted to cancel Mexico-based programs included student decisions to withdraw, leading to lower enrollment; an "abundance of caution” in light of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warning recommending against nonessential travel to Mexico; and limited time – with programs scheduled to depart in May or early June, colleges had to make a determination immediately (whereas programs with start dates later this summer had the luxury of waiting and seeing, and many did and still are).

East Stroudsburg ended up canceling its Mexico program in light of the CDC warning. But by this Monday Bruce’s attention had shifted to another summer program, this one in China.

The Chinese government has issued protocols for additional health screenings and possible quarantine of individuals arriving on international flights from affected countries – including the United States. Travelers will be subject to temperature readings at “thermal-scanning checkpoints" and, “If there are one or more suspected cases of H1N1 on an arriving flight … [p]assengers and crew on the flight will be quarantined in a designated area … until [Health and Quarantine] determines what steps to take, which may include simply completing a 'Quarantine Card,' undergoing a routine medical exam at the airport, or, in some circumstances, transportation to local hospitals and/or hotels designated for quarantine,” according to the May 6 message from the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

“What happens if this giant plane has one person with flu-like symptoms?” Bruce asked. “Even our partners from China have been calling us asking, ‘Would you consider postponing your trip?' That doesn’t seem to be very feasible at this time,” said Bruce who added that East Stroudsburg's summer program in China is still on (it’s slated to depart next Monday, May 18).

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that China had confirmed its first case of H1N1 flu on the mainland -- involving a 30-year-old American university student who flew from St. Louis to Chengdu with stops in St. Paul, Tokyo and Beijing. The Chinese government is attempting to quarantine the sick student's fellow passengers.

Meanwhile, an administrator at one public university in the East, who asked that the college not be named, reported Monday that a Japanese host university had imposed a 10-day quarantine on one of its students.

At the same time, back in North America, initial fears about travel and study in Mexico appear to be subsiding, although the CDC warning on nonessential travel remains in effect.

Nearly all of Mexico's own schools and universities had reopened either last week or Monday -- “By all accounts, today’s like the big going-back-to-school day,” said Ricardo Alday, spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington. "The fact that government offices and restaurants and regular businesses and hotels are open in most parts of the country I think speaks volumes about how we feel that this has not only stabilized but started slowly returning to normality."

Still, Alday voiced caution. “Since this was a new virus and it took everybody by surprise, I think it would be irresponsible for me to say ‘Everything’s OK and we're open for business’….I believe that the worst is over, but again we want to make sure 100 percent that the situation is completely under control.”

"Those students in the States that are planning to go to Mexico I would tell them to check with the CDC and with local authorities and with Mexican authorities. ... Just for the sake of having people back, we're not going to put anybody in a compromising position."

Among the universities that are negotiating the shifting study abroad landscape, Harvard University hasn't issued any restrictions on faculty, staff and student travel. "However, recognizing that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended deferring all nonessential travel to Mexico, we are asking students planning to travel to that country to discuss their plans with an academic advisor and consider whether their goals might also be accomplished by traveling to a different country," the provost, Steven E. Hyman, said in a written statement.

The Institute for Study Abroad at Butler University had offered its students on a spring semester program in Mexico the option to return home early; its summer program in the Yucatán, however, is on. "There are no confirmed cases in the Yucatán, and as anyone can tell looking at a map of Mexico, it's pretty far from Mexico City," said Nancy Cushing-Daniels, director of programs in Latin America and Spain.

The Kentucky Institute for International Studies postponed the start date for its summer programs in Morelia, Mexico from late May to late June, mainly to assuage students' (and, more to the point, their parents') concerns. Students who can't attend due to the date change have the option of choosing a different program or having their program fees refunded.

"There has not been one single case of H1N1 in Morelia, Mexico; that gives us a great comfort level there," said Elizabeth Thomas, coordinator of the Kentucky Institute, a consortium of 21 colleges in Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. Thomas added that they have canceled a planned excursion to Mexico City, the original epicenter of the outbreak, however.

"We do feel that there's been a little bit more made of the crisis than needed to be. We think it was blown a bit out of proportion. The situation seems to have peaked and then improved," Thomas said.

"We're used to this sort of thing. This is a different crisis than we've had but there's always a crisis, every year, and this is just one more and we think we've dealt with it the best way possible."

Gary Rhodes, director of Loyola Marymount University's Center for Global Education, which houses the SAFETI (Safety Abroad First - Educational Travel Information) Clearinghouse Project, suggested that colleges consider swine flu as a case study in planning for such future crises.

"Any time you have an incident like this, whether it's this or a bombing in London or Madrid, or when SARS was coming about, it gives you a set of issues and real examples of case studies to work through so that your staff are better prepared to respond, as well as students," Rhodes said.

"With all the potential health and safety challenges that we find in the U.S. and around the world, how well prepared are you to respond to anything that could potentially take place?"


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