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SARS & studying abroad

The worldwide panic resulting from the deadly spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome has caused USF to cancel its study-abroad program in China.

With the leadership of Linda Carroll, director of the USF China Program, 20 USF students planned to travel overseas for seven weeks this summer to participate in the program.

Well over 7,500 cases of SARS have been reported worldwide, and of those, 573 have died from the illness.

Universities across the country are now scrambling to ensure their communities remain SARS-free. Some are even banning students who have been to SARS-infected countries from attending their schools.

USF isn’t one of them.

“At this point, USF is not banning any students from the SARS-hit areas from attending the university this summer,” said Catherine Seybold, assistant director of International Students and Scholar Services.

A little more than a week ago, University of California, Berkeley, announced a ban on a number of students coming from the SARS-hit areas in Asia from attend-ing their 2003 summer sessions. Then again, according to a K-CBS (San Francisco broadcast news station) report, Berkeley has weakened the ban on certain students coming from those SARS-hit areas by allowing 80 students from Taiwan, Hong Kong and China to attend classes.

“The school will still ban nearly 600 students who had enrolled in English as a second language program,” said Ron Nasoin, in a K-CBS report.

In other reports, Washington University advised students who had recently been in areas affected by SARS, to consider not attending the commencement ceremony May 16, according to the Belleville (Ill.) News Democrat.

However, what USF is doing, according to David Austell, director for ISSS, is providing incoming students with information regarding SARS on USF’s official Web site.

“We’re getting ready for any possibility,” Austell said. “USF Health Services is thoroughly briefed on what to do if the need arises.”

James Pulos, assistant director of Study Abroad and Exchanges, said the program had a very comprehensive itinerary.

“They were going to visit the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and a variety of different places and finally arrive at Wuhan,” Pulos said. “They were also going to go to Shanghai.”

The China Program consisted of an itinerary of almost seven weeks. Pulos mentioned that for the first two weeks, the students would do some touring and then for a little over a month, they would teach English to Chinese students.

“It was very different from the usual model where we have students studying,” Pulos said. “We actually have them teaching.”

Pulos said all students who signed on for the trip will be fully refunded.

“Any time the university is forced, for any reason, to cancel a program, naturally we refund all the students’ money,” Pulos said.

However, Carroll said most of the students who had already bought their airplane tickets could not get their money back from Northwest Airlines. They were, however, allowed to transfer their tickets to a different destination, Carroll said.

Susan Ansara, director of Study Abroad and Exchanges, said various factors were considered before canceling the China summer program.

Every day, Ansara said, the Study Abroad and Exchanges office looks at the updates on the Internet from the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control in the United States and the U.S. State Department Web sites for possible notifications on any event.

“When the U.S. State Department issues a caution at the level of a warning, that is our signal to cancel a program,” Ansara said. “Because it means it might not be safe for our students.”

Ansara said the decision was made April 16, and subsequently the students who signed up for the program were notified within a couple of days.

Carroll shared her concerns about the trip and mentioned her disappointment with how the Chinese government handled SARS in the beginning of the epidemic.

“I had corresponded with many of my students and friends back in China,” Carroll said. “And it seemed like many people in China did not know the extent of the virus because of the government’s intentions to conceal the outbreak.”

Carroll said she was concerned with the inconsistency of how many cases were being reported by Chinese officials, specifically in Tianjing, a city east of Beijing.

“I called a friend, who is a doctor in Tianjing and told her of the 14 cases reported in that city,” Carroll said. “My friend said,’14 cases? I see that many every day.'”

Carroll said events such as these facilitated her decision, along with Ansara, to cancel the China program.

“I didn’t feel comfortable to go there this summer,” Carroll said.

James Tai, a USF alumnus and former Oracle writer who is now teaching English as a second language in China, said the schools have felt the biggest impact.

“The students here spend almost 10 hours a day, seven days a week in school,” Tai said. “So (schools) can be very volatile places.”

In addition, Tai said although he feels slightly safer with the precautionary measures, they have become a bit of a hassle.

“My friend and I were kept from teaching for a week because we had visited some big cities like Tianjing, Xi’an and Qingdao,” Tai said. “We had to go to the hospital to get medical clearance to resume teaching.”

And although 64 cases have been reported in the United States, none of those cases have ended with fatalities. However, only 35 of those have recovered. According to the WHO Web site, to break the chain of transmission of SARS, health care authorities should do three main activities. One is case detection. Patients usually have a fever of 100.4 degrees or more, chills, a heavy cough and muscle aches. Second, the patient must be isolated and finally, trace the contact of the infected patient.