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Swine flu abroad

October 1, 2009

Students in Mexico during outbreak

For most Boston University students, the H1NI swine flu virus is a distant threat on the horizon – something frequently talked about, but not seen or felt personally.

The students who studied abroad in Mexico last spring semester have a different perspective. To them, swine flu is a tangible illness, a reason to be concerned, a cause to change plans.

When 13 College of Engineering students embarked on their semester-long study in Guadalajara, Mexico last January, none of them had ever heard of the swine flu virus. By late April, the potentially killer virus had spread to dozens of countries worldwide and infected hundreds in a span of only weeks. The 13 students lived just hours from Mexico City, the start of it all.

“I didn’t think much of it at first,” said junior Meredith Duffy, a student abroad in Guadalajara at the time. “I didn’t start to worry until our classes got cancelled that first Monday, then for the whole week. I thought, wow, it’s a big deal. A national issue.”

Right away Duffy saw the people of Guadalajara react. Many people wore facemasks to prevent swine flu from spreading, especially those in contact with the public: taxi drivers, pharmacists, gas station workers and waitresses. The dorm the students stayed in provided protective masks too, but ran out quickly. Duffy said she was “lucky to get one” as after a couple of days the entire city had sold its supply.

Duffy and her classmates, not sure how to act, contacted BU via email. Their program had only a few weeks left, with final exams yet to come, but their families and friends at home were worried. After about a day they heard back from program coordinators in Boston.

“They said we were welcome to come home. We didn’t have to, but they’d understand if we wanted to and our exams would be taken care of later,” said Duffy. “We took that as a sign that it was probably a good idea to come home.”

All 13 BU students abroad in Guadalajara chose to come home early. The International Programs office asked students not to return to campus in Boston for at least 10 days, according to Joseph Finkhouse, Director of Institutional Relations at BU.

“At that time worries about transmission and the severity of the illness were greater than they are now,” said Finkhouse.

Students warn: swine flu a real danger; better safe than sorry

Now back in Boston, Duffy says she had a great experience in Mexico, even with the disappointingly early ending. Duffy says that she never worried about contracting the disease. Still, she knows swine flu can be a real danger.

“I have a number of friends who are really apathetic,” said Duffy. “But I was there; I was close and knew friends of friends in Mexico who contracted swine flu.”

Duffy doesn’t think that the media or BU overhypes swine flu, especially now as the fall and winter flu seasons approach.

“I looked up information, did a lot of research when I first heard about it in Mexico,” Duffy said. “Swine flu affects young, healthy people more than the normal flu. A lot of people say ‘I’m young, I’m healthy, I can’t get it.’ Not true. Everyone needs to be careful.”

Thiago Guedes De Melo, a student who studied abroad with Duffy, agrees.

“You can’t over-worry about it. But play it safe. If you feel sick, rest or go to the doctor. Better safe than sorry,” he said.

Guedes De Melo’s family lives in Mexico, but he spends his summers in Brazil. People in Mexico don’t see swine flu as a big deal anymore, he said, but in Brazil people still worry, like they do here in the U.S. Living in Guadalajara at the time of outbreak has made him more cautious, he said.

Abroad this fall semester

Students studying abroad this fall semester are no more at risk than those here in Boston, said Finkhouse. He and other International Programs representatives have sent instructions with general information on symptoms and care to students abroad, similar to advice BU has given students on campus.

“The disease is spreading around the world, but is not more severe in any particular location,” said Finkhouse. “The level of health care available to students at all of our sites is fine.”

Faina Rozental, a College of Arts and Science junior, is abroad in Ecuador this semester. She doesn’t worry about contracting swine flu. She washes her hands frequently and tries not to touch her face, eyes and nose to avoid illness in general, not just the swine flu, she said in an email.

In general, the people in Ecuador do not worry about swine flu, according to Rozental.

“Swine flu comes up in the news here, but rarely,” said Rozental. The family she stays with has never mentioned the virus. “One of my professors here had swine flu this summer and talked about it remarkably casually.”

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