April 17, 2003

SARS Concerns Students Abroad

Print More

While the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic continues to spread throughout various parts of Asia and around the world, Cornell community members planning to travel in the upcoming months may face postponements, cancellations and extra travel precautions in their travel agendas.

In a statement issued on Monday, University officials recommended that individuals of the Cornell community avoid nonessential travel to or from areas affected by the SARS epidemic, including mainland China, Hong Kong, Hanoi, Vietnam and Singapore, until the advisories are lifted.

The University’s statement is consistent with the advisory issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

As of yesterday, WHO had documented 3,293 SARS cases worldwide, including 159 deaths.

“Because scientists and clinicians still don’t fully understand SARS, and because new people continue to get infected, we don’t really know yet what the parameters of this outbreak are going to be,” said Sharon Dittman, associate director for community relations at Gannett: Cornell University Health Services.

“Four percent of people identified with having SARS have died, but we don’t know how many people may have had SARS without having been identified or included in the actual fatality rate,” Dittman said.

Many of the trips to Asia funded by the University’s study abroad programs have been put on hold or have been canceled, according to Prof. Thak Chaloemtiarana, director of undergraduate studies for the Asian Studies Program.

“Some granting agencies have prohibited travel to affected areas,” Chaloemtiarana said. “I understand that many parents and students are concerned about the current SARS situation in China and Southeast Asia, and I have alerted students to warnings from government agencies.”

On Monday, Chaloemtiarana issued a statement to the recipients of a summer travel grant to Asia, noting that several students had approached him about deferring their trips to areas possibly affected by SARS.

“Because of this uncertain and worrisome situation, students receiving awards to travel to China and to Southeast Asia this summer will be allowed to postpone their trips until next summer,” Chaloemtiarana said.

“The emergence of new viruses has happened throughout history … however, the speed, convenience and frequency of traveling today have enabled this virus to jump onto the world stage very quickly,” Dittman said.

While some students are postponing their trips to Asia, others studying abroad in Asia this semester have recently faced the decision to suspend their academic pursuits in the interest of personal health.

At the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) located in the region of Shatin near the site of the earliest outbreak, classes have been suspended since last Monday and will remain canceled until tomorrow.

Esther Tang ’04, who had been studying at CUHK at the time of the first outbreak, said that she decided to leave Hong Kong on April 1 and relocate to Shanghai, “even though CUHK is a suburban campus and somewhat removed from the infected zones.”

Several reasons led to Tang’s decision to leave Hong Kong.

“Though 10 nations and the WHO have top scientists working around the clock, no vaccinations have been produced — even after weeks of work,” Tang said. “I was scared to hear that SARS was so mutated that our top specialists were left searching in the dark.”

Tang noted that her local friends in Hong Kong were taking many precautionary moves to avoid infection. “They tell me that if they could leave too, they would as well,” Tang said.

“My roommate at CUHK refused to see any of her friends, and some of my other friends have stopped allowing other people to borrow their things like cell phones. In fact, one Canadian exchange student’s roommate told him not to share a room phone with him anymore,” she added.

Tang also said that Cornell Abroad, the School of Hotel Administration, Gannett: Cornell University Health Services and the Office of Student and Academic Services have all contacted her and encouraged her to evaluate the best course of action.

“They said they would support my decision and help in any way,” she said.

Petula Shyu ’04, who had also been studying at CUHK this semester, shortened her stay in Hong Kong and returned to the United States in early April.

“Most of my friends from the exchange program have left,” she said, noting the general sentiment of fear amongst exchange students.

“Though the news does hype [the situation] somewhat, the professors [at CUHK] definitely played it down as if SARS were something you could just shrug off,” Shyu said. She noted that during her stay in Hong Kong, she “felt endangered.”

“By the time I had left, which was a week and a half after the major outbreak at the Metropole Hotel, the government had begun to quarantine people in camps — but the camps being quarantined were for the people who were already sick, so there are still people in Hong Kong who are infected with the virus but haven’t been quarantined,” Shyu said.

Tang noted that the local media in China portrays the developments toward containing the epidemic “in a positive light.”

“The media keeps saying that we are on the verge of a breakthrough for the vaccination and that people are all recovering,” she said.

In contrast, Tang noted that the American media addresses the epidemic with much more panic than she believes is necessary.

Tang described her own reaction to the SARS outbreak as a feeling of “disbelief.”

“After three months [in the exchange program], I had established deep friendships with other exchange students. Everything ended abruptly, and it feels surreal now,” Tang said.

The main symptoms of SARS are high fever, dry cough and breathing difficulties, according to WHO. Other symptoms may include headache, muscular stiffness, loss of appetite, rash and diarrhea.

Dittman said that students exhibiting a fever, cough and difficulty breathing should seek medical evaluation only if they have traveled to Asia in the past seven days or have had face-to-face contact with someone who has recently traveled in Asia.

Dittman encourages students with intentions to travel to or near affected areas to consider not just public recommendations about the epidemic but also to take general precautionary measures in regards to personal health.

“Wherever they plan to be in the world, students should prepare for the different types of situations they may encounter,” she said.

Dittman urged students to verify their health insurance coverage wherever they are in the world and to research the availability of hospitals in the areas to which they plan to travel.

“Will getting care for other [non-SARS related] health needs be problematic in the areas they will be traveling to? If they become ill and need to be evacuated, do they have access to services to help them do that, and do they have access to the money to pay for those considerable expenses?” Dittman said.

Noting that “young people often have a sense of invincibility,” Dittman advised students intending to travel in spite of the warnings “to learn as much as they can about the current situation, potential developments and issues of concern in order to make realistic and careful plans.”

She also suggested that students consult Gannett’s travel clinic staff members, who are “well versed in the current situation
and in recommendations about travel.”

Tang advised Cornell community members with upcoming travel plans to Asia to find reliable sources for inside information and developments on the epidemic.

“I want Cornell students to always ask for more details, even when other people may tell them to calm down,” she said. “You can never be sure whether they really know more than you do about the situation, especially when you could be helping yourself prevent a horrible consequence.”

Tang said that because China is “a huge developing country,” preparations for traveling there should always begin with standard safety measures such as getting the proper vaccinations.

To date, there are no suspected cases in the Cornell community, Ithaca or Tompkins County, according to Dittman.

To determine if the area to which you are planning to travel is affected by SARS, or for updated information about the epidemic, consult the CDC and WHO websites.

Archived article by Janet Liao