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Students and faculty in all of the University’s twelve schools may no longer use any Harvard money to study and travel in areas affected by SARS—including several east Asian nations and Toronto, Canada—according to University announcement released yesterday.
According to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control, Hong Kong and mainland China, Singapore, Vietnam and Toronto, Canada have been affected by the rapid spread of the mysterious Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, more commonly know as SARS.
While the University had strongly warned against travel to countries for which the World Health Organization (WHO) had issued travel advisories, this is the first time it has announced a policy expressly forbidding the use of funding for nearly all travel to these areas, according to University spokesperson Joe Wrinn.
But the rapidly changing pool of information about the epidemic means that the travel moratorium could be lifted at any time, if the incidence of new cases or fatality rates decline, said David S. Rosenthal ’59, director of Harvard University Health Services (UHS).
“We’ve been a little bit more firm with our decision today, but this could change in a week,” Rosenthal said.
Concerns about the contagiousness of the disease also motivated the decision to impose the moratorium on University-sponsored travel, Rosenthal said.
“We live in a very close community and infections can spread very rapidly,” Rosenthal said.
University President Lawrence H. Summers agreed in an interview Wednesday that the possibility of cases infecting others within the school was a major concern.
“The important thing to think about in connection with SARS is not the current numbers but the potential for exponential expansion in the number of people affected,” Summers said.
The effort to strongly deter travel to affected areas was drawn from a concern not only about individual travelers, but about the community at large, Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby wrote in a letter to colleagues yesterday.
“Individual travelers risk their own infection, of course, but they can also spread the disease to the wider population...We must take precautions to protect our public health,” Kirby wrote.
Although students and faculty routinely participate in global travel, exposing themselves to foreign diseases that are uncommon or eradicated in the U.S., the situation with SARS necessitates greater caution because of the confusion and lack of information surrounding the disease, Wrinn said.
“The mystery behind the disease is the key thing now,” Wrinn said. “It’s a moving target, and hopefully we will find out more information and be able to make adjustments soon.”
The exact method of transmission of SARS is currently unknown, but the WHO website says it may be transmitted through secretions or exhaled droplets of saliva in the air.
There is currently no vaccine for SARS, and its similarity to other common sicknesses such as influenza, combined with a long incubation period of ten days make it difficult to identify and diagnose, Harvard Medical School Professor Kenneth McIntosh ’58 said in an interview earlier this month.
“Given this much uncertainty about how it spreads and how virulent it is, and given questions about the availability of health care in affected regions, this seems cautious but appropriate,” said David Ropeik, director of risk communication at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Risk Analysis.
“We may look back, and with the clarity of hindsight think its is an overreaction, but its still too uncertain to know,” Ropeik said.
A message posted on the University’s web site also strongly advised against personal trips to SARS-affected countries, and stated that students or employees who still must travel to these countries are requested to confer with their respective deans, and consult University Health Services (UHS) before and after their trips.
Those returning from affected areas may also be asked to stay home for a 10-day period before returning to campus and class to ensure they exhibit no symptoms of the disease, Rosenthal said.
The message also stated that the University will not “facilitate or otherwise endorse travel to affected areas.”
Wrinn clarified that the University is not directly prohibiting schools from awarding class credit to students who still decide to travel to SARS-affected areas, but is leaving the decision up to the individual faculties.
“The University doesn’t give grades, it doesn’t give credit for courses,” Wrinn said.
But students in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences cannot receive credit for study in countries covered by the advisory, Leslie Hill, assistant director of study and work abroad at the Office of International Programs said Monday.
The moratorium comes as students at the College are planning trips for this summer and next year to study and perform thesis research in China and other affected countries.
At least four students in the East Asian Studies Department will have to change the foci of their thesis because they will not be able to conduct planned research abroad this summer, said Claudine C. Stuchell ’04, who was planning to conduct thesis research in the interior of China during the vacation.
“I can’t fund myself, so I can’t go to China,” Stuchell said. “I wish they weren’t doing such a blanket policy for the whole country, that it was on a more case-by-case basis.”
The change in policy may also affect those planning to spend next year studying in China, though most are keeping their plans given the fact that the policy may change before the fall.
“Right now, I’m planning on...being in Beijing [next year], but I recognize these plans are tentative,” said Victor D. Ban ’04, who received a fellowship from Harvard’s Yenching Institute to study in China for a year.
“I will be prepared to call plans off in August,” he added.
Carly L. Cohen ’05, who also received a Yenching fellowship said she was still planning to go to China next year, but that she will not be able to go if the school revokes her grant.
According to Rosenthal, Harvard is not alone in its restriction of travel to SARS-affected countries. Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale all have similar moratoriums in effect, he said.
—Staff writer Katharine A. Kaplan can be reached at email@example.com.
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