LSA junior Geoffrey Baier had planned to study Arabic while abroad at American University in Cairo this semester. But because of the swine flu scare, the Egyptian government asked the University to cancel classes for a week — forcing Baier to pick up the language on his own.
Baier is one of approximately 80 University students studying abroad in more than 15 countries through the Office of International Programs this fall. Though not everyone has had classes suspended since the H1N1 virus broke out, students studying abroad have had to be more cautious about their health and more flexible with their schedules.
While there had been no confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus on American University’s campus, the school delayed the start of classes so the university could begin at the same time as other universities who have postponed classes because of the flu.
Besides the weeklong suspension, the American University is on break because of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr that started Sept. 19. Classes are set to reconvene on Oct. 3, but Baier wrote in an e-mail interview that it’s possible classes will continue to be postponed because of the flu.
“What is frustrating is the lack of new information from the university, there are rumors that our break will be extended, but nothing is confirmed,” Baier wrote.
But Baier doesn’t mind the extra free time. The last few weeks he has been traveling around Egypt — snorkeling, riding camels and climbing Mount Sinai.
In an e-mail, Baier wrote that he will continue to explore while officials figure out what to do with his study abroad program.
“I am leaving again in a half hour to go to Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast and then the Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert,” he wrote. “I might still be able to fit in another trip after that, we’ll see.”
Nicole LeBlanc, Office of International Programs assistant director, wrote in an e-mail interview that — with the exception of Egypt — the office has not been informed of any direct difficulties students have experienced because of worries about the H1N1 virus while studying abroad for the fall term.
“The Egyptian government has delayed the resumption of classes at the American University of Cairo following a holiday to bring that campus calendar in line with other university calendars who did experience H1N1-related suspensions,” LeBlanc wrote.
In addition to having their classes suspended, some University of Michigan students have been infected with the H1N1 virus while studying abroad.
The OIP does not know the exact number of students who have contracted the virus, because not all students were tested for the flu. LeBlanc wrote that a small number of students exhibited H1N1 symptoms during the summer, and OIP responded by directly contacting them.
“We communicate with students on an individual basis once we are aware they are ill, and try to ensure they have what they need for a safe and complete recovery,” she wrote.
LeBlanc added that OIP takes the health and safety of students studying abroad “very seriously.”
The office constantly monitors international areas through the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention websites. OIP also seeks advice from University medical officials.
When the H1N1 virus broke out in April, the University cancelled and suspended abroad programs in Mexico — where the virus originated. As compensation, the University offered alternate locations for students to study, in other Spanish-speaking countries like the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Spain.
LeBlanc wrote that there has been less of a concern about H1N1 since the virus emerged in the spring.
“In addition to the information shared by medical professionals at (the University), we are aware that the current status of H1N1 influenza outbreaks in most international locations is less severe now than it was in April/May of this year, or even later in the summer,” she wrote.
According to the World Health Organization, as of Sept. 20, the H1N1 virus has caused 3,917 deaths in 191 countries — with more than 300,000 confirmed cases worldwide.
In an interview last month, Chief Health Officer Robert Winfield said there has been a “continuing level” of H1N1 across the world, particularly in the southern hemisphere.
“It’s been quite active in the southern hemisphere in Australia, South America (and) southern Africa,” Winfield said. “That’s because this is the winter time, which is the typical time for influenza.”
LSA senior Allison Grekin said she believes she contracted the H1N1 virus when she was studying abroad at the University of Oxford in England this summer.
Out of 40 students in the program, Grekin said 10 of them had the flu. Although she was not officially tested for H1N1, Grekin said she believed she had it because she exhibited the virus’ symptoms, which include a fever over 100.4 degrees, coughing, a sore throat, aching muscles and vomiting.
In line with the University of Michigan’s current policy, the University of Oxford told ill students to isolate themselves in their rooms, where resident advisors brought them meals. Students there were also prohibited from going to a doctor because health officials feared contagious patients would spread the flu.
After missing one week of classes, Grekin said she fell far behind with her coursework.
“My professors had to create special assignments for me because I couldn’t complete what was on the syllabus,” she said, adding that her professors were understanding and willing to make adjustments.
“The flu destroyed the regular syllabus and the regular amount of studying we had to do,” she said.
But even healthy students ran into problems while studying overseas this summer.
LSA junior Grayson Smith traveled to China this summer with about 15 other students from across the country. When they arrived at the airport in Haikou, medical officials boarded the plane to take every passenger’s temperature.
According to Smith, one boy in the group had a slightly elevated temperature and was sent to the hospital for the night. The rest of the students were taken to Hainan University, where they were supposed to study for nine weeks, but they were quarantined in a building on the edge of campus.
At specific times twice per day, people came to check their temperatures. Smith said they were discouraged from socializing with each other and had to isolate themselves in their rooms for one week.
“We had to relax and take it easy, which was kind of a bummer because everyone was so excited to get there,” he said.
Since people worldwide had concerns about the H1N1 virus, Smith said what happened to him wasn’t “completely out of the blue,” but that the steps taken for healthy individuals were unexpected.
“What surprised us more was how we were treated,” he said. “We were sort of held in the dark about exactly what was going on and how exactly this was an effective way to prevent us from infecting the Chinese community.”
The U.S. Department of State has placed a travel alert to all U.S. citizens traveling to China. The message — warning of China’s strict measures of quarantining passengers who have fevers or influenza symptoms — expires Dec. 30, 2009.
According to LeBlanc, this is not an issue for OIP because there are no students traveling to China through University programs this fall.
Other students traveling this semester, like LSA junior Katrina Lewis, have been told to practice good health habits so they don’t get sick.
Lewis is studying at L’Institut d’Etudes Politique d’Aix-en-Provence in France. She wrote in an e-mail interview that the university has taken measures to inform students how to stay healthy.
“I have seen many ‘cover your cough’ posters and other posters detailing hand washing or other useful prevention techniques,” she wrote.
Although Lewis said she has not heard of anyone getting the virus on campus, she said the university plans to close for a week if three or more cases appear.
LSA seniors Chelsea Roth and Leah Hoffheimer were studying together at John Cabot University in Rome when the first cases of H1N1 surfaced in Mexico.
Roth said many Europeans were not nervous about the flu because “it was something that was kind of far away.”
Hoffheimer said the hype they experienced came from talking to their parents and listening to the news.
“We became obsessed with American news, and we all made CNN our homepage,” she said. “We were constantly checking to see what was going on.”
According to Roth, American students were mostly worried about flying back to the United States, especially when government officials advised against traveling on airplanes.
“The day before we left, Vice President (Joe) Biden made that target comment that he wouldn’t fly or have his family get on a plane,” she said.
But everyone made it home safe safely and healthy.
LeBlanc wrote that the H1N1 virus is still on OIP’s radar, but there are also other concerns to follow.
“We continue to carefully monitor all areas of the world, and try to keep an eye on the bigger picture in terms of health, safety and security, not just the flu,” she wrote.