Abroad News & Views
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Remember All That Hype About The Swine Flu?
Now that the hype surrounding swine flu appears to have passed, it’s time to take off our masks, breathe deeply, and reflect on what just happened. The last few weeks saw the World Health Organization release a pandemic warning for the H1N1 virus (formerly known as “swine flu,” until pork industry officials complained), which caused dozens of study abroad programs to halt operations and recall students from Mexico. These included the University of Wisconsin, University of Minnesota, Butler University, and Penn State University.
But as The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this week, while the hype about swine flu (I don’t cave so easily to the pork lobby) may have been greatly exaggerated, the lessons to be learned for study abroad programs could be invaluable. In an increasingly globalized world where rapidly transmitted global pandemics are a real possibility, study abroad programs need to prepare viable and quick responses to protect their students.
When swine flu hit, study abroad programs appeared to be unsure of a definite course of action. Mexico program providers, being at the epicenter of the outbreak, were faced with the toughest decisions. Many cancelled their programs outright, such as the University of Kansas, while others adopted a “wait and see” attitude pending further information from the Center for Disease Control and WHO.
What remains clear is the importance of avoiding rash decisions and unnecessary cancellations. We’re not saying any universities made a mistake, but we do recognize how easy it can be to get caught up in the excitement around the word “pandemic.” The two confirmed deaths in the United States have made swine flu 18,000 times less deadly than the ordinary influenza virus according to the CDC. Worldwide, that virus kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people annually, but no one dons their face mask come January each year.
The CDC and State Department both offer general, practical information and location-specific information regarding security and health risks. In this case, neither demanded a full recall of U.S. citizens, but rather issued a list of precautionary measures to take—such as avoiding large gatherings and maintaining proper hygiene—and a list of approved hospitals to visit in case of infection. And they did so with a calm, rational approach.
It’s difficult to make decisions in the heat of the moment, and we don’t blame some universities for erring on the side of caution. But let's just remember not to bolt at the first Twitter post about a deadly new pandemic.
- Jon Rapoport
Photo by Guerry Monero (cc)
Useful CDC and State Department Websites: