SARS concerns trigger U-issued Hong Kong, China travel warning

by Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

In response to U.S. State Department and World Health Organization advisories, the University provost’s office sent an e-mail to its directors, department heads and deans Monday recommending that no one travel to Hong Kong or mainland China due to the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak.

“After much reflection and discussion with public health experts, the University recommends that faculty, staff and students avoid discretionary travel to the People’s Republic of China and Hong Kong at this time, and that those currently in the region return home as soon as possible,” the statement said.

Gene Allen, University international programs executive director, said Global Campus, the China Center and the vice president’s office, as well as officials from the University’s epidemiology department, helped formulate the travel warning.

Allen said Global Campus is notifying the three University students in Hong Kong, as well as the eight students studying in mainland China. He said this was a warning and not a mandate, and the University is not considering pulling students out, he said.

“We don’t know for sure how many (students) will come home,” Allen said. “We’ve been told that some do not want to come home.”

He said the University has no way to force students to leave China.

“If they choose to stay, that’s their decision,” he said.

Allen would not comment on any potential University liability if a student contracted SARS.

No University students have been infected with SARS, and there are no outbreaks at Nankai University or the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, where the students are currently studying, Allen said.

“This warning was not done in response to any illness,” he said.

Allen said he decided to endorse the warning after meeting with epidemiologists and officials from other universities Thursday and Friday.

“We spent about half a day discussing this,” Allen said. “That’s when my mind began to change.”

The University of Michigan announced Friday that it was canceling or postponing all foreign exchange programs to China in response to the epidemic. The university also recommends all students and faculty return, according to its Web site.

The cause of SARS is still unknown, though it might be caused by a previously unrecognized coronavirus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site.

So far, SARS has infected more than 2,500 people in 19 countries. There have been 103 deaths, according to the CDC.

Allen said issuing the warning was a prudent decision.

“I have been to China three times; I plan to return,” Allen said. “But I would not go at this time.”