SARS creates concern within China program

The worldwide health scare known as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) has sent the world scrambling for answers. According to the World Health Organization, the potentially deadly syndrome has now killed 106 people, bringing the total infected to 2,722 in 16 countries, including the United States.

“This is apparently a new, different and unique syndrome,” said Dr. Donald J. Kennedy, professor at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine and an expert in infectious diseases.

Symptoms of the virus include fever, cough, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing, Kennedy said; it is apparently spread by close contact through the air. There is a strong likelihood that SARS came from the animal kingdom and spread to humans.

Kennedy said that the level of threat in the United States is small, though there is no predictability for the future, he said.

While the threat of SARS in the United States is relatively low, with 149 reported cases and no deaths, the threat in mainland China, Hong Kong and other areas in the southern region of China is high. As of yesterday, there have been 1,280 cases in China and 970 in Hong Kong. In these two areas together, there have been 80 deaths.

Currently, there are four SLU students studying at The Beijing Center in China.

Maria Bravo, program coordinator of the International Center, said that no one in the China program has been infected and that the directors there have been meeting with students to keep them informed of the situation. In addition to the four SLU students, 56 students from other universities are currently enrolled in the program.

“We did let our students know if anyone feels threatened and feels uncomfortable that we will allow them to come home earlier and finish their courses at home,” said Cecilia Chang, admissions director of The Beijing Center. “However, no one wants to leave the program and come home earlier.”

Beijing is 1,254 miles from Hong Kong, or approximately the distance from St. Louis to Las Vegas.

In a report sent to all home universities, Chang said, “The students are fully informed of the symptoms. They are told to stay away from anyone who has such symptoms and to report immediately to the staff if they even suspect having any such symptoms.”

In addition, the report said that travel restrictions are in place for any students wishing to go to southern areas of China, which has high rates of SARS infections. Any student who travels to infected areas would not be allowed back into the program.

“We cannot force them not to go, but we are informing the parents of their intent, and if they go to a highly infected area (against WHO advisories), we would not allow them back into the residence,” the report said.

The Beijing Center has also canceled three programs that were to bring in a total

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of 60 people for a month-long program. The people were scheduled to pass through Hong Kong. “We do not want to take any chances in infecting our students,” Chang said.

Peg McKibbin, director of Student Development at The Beijing Center in China, wrote a letter to the parents, informing them of the situation. No cases of SARS have been treated at the Beijing United Family Hospital, where student medical needs are cared for. A total of 10 cases have been reported in Beijing.

“Contingency plans are ready if SARS gets worse and spreads to Beijing,” Chang said. “In such a case we would have the students leave Beijing and return home, finishing the semester by e-mail.”

Kennedy said SARS is a contagious viral respiratory tract syndrome and a member of the coronavirus family. The name coronavirus comes from the structure of the virus under an electron microscope. The virus has a spiky, crown-like exterior structure, hence the name corona, Kennedy said.

Of those sick enough to go to the doctor with symptoms of SARS, about 5 percent of them die, Kennedy said.

If in the rare chance that SARS would come to SLU, those infected would be placed in protective isolation and taken out of all classes.

If the virus were to become a larger epidemic, SLU is one of six research centers in the country that would be likely candidates for doing human vaccine trials. However, that is at least a year away, Kennedy said, for the organism that causes the syndrome must first be identified.

“This is reminiscent of the fear that HIV brought (in the early 1980s),” Kennedy said. “The fear was disproportionate to the risk. With SARS we don’t know the risk, so we don’t know if the fear is proportionate.”