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SAFETI Online Newsletter
Volume 3 Number 1, 2005 Edition
Preparing for the Possibility of an Avian Flu Pandemic Issues to Consider
for Study Abroad Programs
by Gary Rhodes
Most institutions have positive experiences with their study abroad programs. We have seen an increase in study abroad participation numbers post-911. College presidents and government leaders continue to emphasize the importance of study abroad. This has included Goucher College's recent requirement that all students study abroad and the recent Harvard College Curriculum review with a clear emphasis on study abroad and international opportunities for their students.
Avian Flu is not the first health and safety issue to come to the attention of the study abroad field. The field has recently responded to other potential "worst-case scenarios", which have (so far) been localized problems, rather than those which have directly impacted a group of study abroad students, including:
The possibility of a similar situation with the spread of SARS
The possibility of students in a study abroad group being targeted by terrorist activity
The possibility of all technology around the world failing, resulting in a worldwide crisis at the end of the millennium (Y2K).
As discussed in the introduction to this edition of the SAFETI Newsletter, health and safety issues have continued to grow in importance for institutions, students, and parents. One of the health issues that is gaining in attention and could affect us in the U.S. and abroad in a catastrophic way is the possibility of an Avian Flu pandemic.
Background Information: Avian Flu
Avian Flu (H5N1) has primarily been spread from bird-to-bird with a limited number of cases from bird to human. There have been a very small number of cases where experts believe that very close human-to-human contact spread the virus (the most often cited case occured between a mother and her child in Thailand). Experts are concerned that the H5N1 virus could mutate and evolve into a type that could be more easily spread among humans. When avian influenza subtypes adapt for this mode of transmission the effect can be deadly for humans as the immune system has no natural immunities for it. Cases of Avian Flu have emerged in a growing number of regions worldwide, following the movement of migratory birds. Although hopeful that Avian Flu will not spread, institutions should be considering the possibility of future alterations in their study abroad programs, should Avian Flu spread more quickly to humans in cities/countries where they are operating study abroad programs.
The possibility of an Avian Flu pandemic has been raised by emergency assistance and health professionals for a couple of years. However, recently, Avian Flu has been a topic of discussion in the front pages of papers, headline on the evening news, and a significant concern of health professionals. From the President of the United States to political and health leaders around the world, there is a clear message that Avian Flu could become a problem which could expand to pandemic proportions in the U.S. and around the world.
It is critical that faculty, staff, students, and parents put appropriate perspective on the possibility of the spread of Avian Flu. While there have been no reported cases of study abroad participants being ill or dying because of Avian Flu, it is critical for institutions to analyze the issues and risks for their faculty, staff, and students. We have developed a document on our Study Abroad Student Handbook, offering perspective and resources for students and parents: Special Issue: Avian Flu . In the article, we direct students to communicate with the study abroad office staff, a physician, and to check on their emergency assistance plan and coverage:
As program support varies from institution to institution, check to make sure that study abroad program staff at your U.S. home institution and abroad are monitoring the situation daily, reviewing the possible impact of Avian Flu on students and programs, and updating their emergency plans accordingly. Ask whether or not your institution is currently in the process of deciding whether or not to cancel programs in affected areas, reviewing transportation plans, or postponing pending study abroad programs in certain areas due to a potential health risk. For students returning from affected regions, inquire to see if your institution encourages you to get a check-up at your campus health center and remember to report any Avian Flu-like symptoms.
We haven't heard of any institutions canceling study abroad programs because of Avian Flu at this time. However, it is critical that each student (with advice from others) makes a decision supporting his/her health and safety on whether to study abroad, or continue studying, in countries affected by Avian Flu. Requiring the return of students abroad to the United States ultimately remains a decision that your institution and experts on campus, along with local and international guidance, will make. Students who voluntarily or non-voluntarily return to the United States before the ending date of their programs should consult their institution's policies regarding program refunds and credit-transfer.
If you have any further questions, your first point of contact should be study abroad administrators in the U.S. and abroad, your personal physician and/or the physicians at your college or university health center. In terms of preparing for medical assistance abroad or return to the U.S. in case of an outbreak, find out about local medical care, as well as whether there is emergency assistance coverage and what the response would be if an outbreak of Avian Flu took place on the program abroad (Center for Global Education Study Abroad Student Handbook: Special Issue: Avian Flu ).
Putting Avian Flu Into Perspective
At a meeting I attended today, someone suggested that institutions should consider planning in the same way they did in 1999 for Y2K. Your campus and your study abroad programs probably took part in a significant emergency planning exercise to plan for various worst-case
scenarios and how you'd be able to respond on campus and abroad.
Study abroad administration is complex and involves administering the responsibilities of a full university in another part of the world. As a result, responding to any serious health and safety issue is best done if it is a part of an effectively run program that receives institutional support and has colleagues to assist in the various issues that come up during a crisis. The possibility of an Avian Flu pandemic falls into this category.
Preparing for the worst-case scenario requires a broad-ranging review on issues from medical care abroad, emergency evacuation policies and options, refund policies, separation of faculty, staff, and students if on-site administrators are the ones who become sick, having 24-hour support in the U.S. and abroad, maintaining updated information about Avian flu's impact in any place where a program takes place, where excursions go, and where students go during independent travel.
If an institution integrates this into their crisis management planning, this can become and opportunity to be prepared for other crises not foreseen by faculty and staff. This is also an opportunity for study abroad administrators to take on a an active role in on-campus crisis management planning as this is a problem that could just as easily affect the city where your campus is in the U.S. This is an opportunity to prepare on campus and prepare abroad in an integrated fashion.
Key personnel to involve in planning, for a comprehensive university, could include:
- U.S. college or university/Study abroad program support team
- Student affairs administrators
- Study abroad administrators
- Campus security/police officer
- Risk manager/insurance coordinator
- Legal counsel
- Health center
- Counseling center
- Public relations
- President or chancellor's office
- Other on-site staff
- Student representative
- Support Abroad
- On-site program administrator
- Other on-site staff
- On-site health provider
- On-site counseling provider
- Insurance representative
- 24-hour assistance company
- U.S. government representative (Embassy or Consular official)
- Local police
- Local emergency assistance provider
In developing an effective preparation for this or any other possible crisis abroad, it would be good to have a Crisis Management Team in the U.S., a Crisis Management Plan, and policies and procedures which have been tested abroad.
Following are links to several resources that may help your institution develop its Crisis Management Team, Crisis Management Plan, and policies and procedures.
- SAFETI Audit Checklist:
Crisis and Risk Management
- SAFETI Adaptation of Peace Corps Resources:
- SAFETI Resources for Crisis Management :
- Student Study Abroad Safety Handbook
Impact on Students
The Center strongly suggests that institutions provide information to parents and students, including travel and country-specific warnings provided by the U.S. Department of State, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization (WHO). The Center also suggests you seek alternative information from international sources in the European Union, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and from the World Health Organization. (Please see below for links to these resources).
As program support varies from institution to institution, develop a method monitoring the situation daily, reviewing the possible impact of Avian Flu on students and programs, and updating emergency plans accordingly. Develop a process for deciding whether or not to cancel programs in affected areas, reviewing transportation plans, or postponing pending study abroad programs in certain areas due to a potential health risk. For students returning from affected regions, inquire to see if your institution encourages you to get a check-up at your campus health center and remember to report any Avian Flu-like symptoms.
Other Information Resources
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have both provided resources and information to help you understand Avian Flu. A Center Sponsor and Emergency Assistance Company, International SOS, has useful information and resources to help you as well.
CDC Avian Flu Info
WHO Avian Flu Info
International SOS Avian Flu Info
U.S. Government Resources:
- U.S. Department of State
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- World Health Organization (WHO)
- Updates on Avian Flu
Lists most current information on outbreaks, including regional information.
- Updates on Avian Flu
- European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control
Advice for travelers regarding Avian Flu
- Canadian Government-Current Health Issues
Provides updated information on Avian Flu, including Public Health Agency of Canada recommendations
- United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Provides travel advice and fact sheet on Avian Flu
- Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Travel bulletin for health, with specific information and links about Avian Flu
- The Center for Global Education's Resources :