SARS Worries Spark Campus Health Tests

Rapidly spreading throughout Asia, Canada, and the United States, the mysterious Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) illness has caused alarm around the globe and has prompted Phillips Academy health officials to take precautions for those students who returned to China and Singapore over break. Andover currently has sixteen students from China, including fourteen from Hong Kong, as well as two students from Singapore. Twelve out of these eighteen students returned home for break, and all of these students have met with School Physician Dr. Richard Keller since returning to campus. “We want to be conservative in our approach but not overreact,” Dr. Keller explained. “The risk of people contracting SARS is very, very low even in high-risk areas, so there is no cause for panic.” Because of the SARS threat, World Health Organization (WHO) has issued travel advisories to China and Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Singapore. As the number of confirmed cases has continued to escalate, the US State Department has started evacuation of diplomats and military personnel stationed in high-risk regions. SARS, believed to have developed in southern China’s Guangdong province in November, has affected about 2,400 people and spread to sixteen countries. Although the SARS strain developed from the same family as pneumonia, it appears to be less infectious than influenza. To date, 95 people have died from the disease so far; a mortality rate of 3.6%. Dr. Keller stressed, “SARS is a disease with a pretty low mortality compared to other epidemics, so it doesn’t warrant some of the panic that is out there.” He also stated that he was not worried about the disease spreading through the PA student body. “To date, there have been no cases of transmission between people in the US,” he said. “Things could always change, but in two months this could fizzle out.” Dr. Keller is meeting with administrators to discuss the status of Andover’s summer programs in China as well as the much anticipated faculty trip to China. Academy students who traveled to China, Hong Kong, or other Southeast Asian countries over spring break were required to visit the Isham Health Center for ten days after their return to Andover to ensure that their health could be monitored. Students expressed mixed reactions to these cautionary procedures. “They made me come in everyday…I feel like I can take my own temperature and call them if I feel sick,” said Lydia Wallace’04, who spent spring break in Vietnam. However, Alvin Yu ’04, a Hong Kong resident who donned a face mask upon his return to campus, stated, “It makes sense to me to protect others and myself because I don’t know whether or not I have SARS.” Fellow Hong Kong resident Stephanie Chan ’05 added, “There were no people on the streets (at home) and everybody who was out was wearing a mask. I think Hong Kong was the cleanest it has ever been because everything is being washed so much and nobody will touch anything.” Chair of the Chinese Department Yuan Han who traveled to China over break remains optimistic that SARS will be contained. “I didn’t fear anything when I was there,” Dr Han said. “Only 2000 people have been affected in China. That is only such a small fraction of the population… But I must always be thinking about the safety of my students.” Doctors throughout the world are working quickly to determine the cause and a cure or vaccine for SARS. “Experience still suggests that most of the transmission occurs by droplets, which requires standing three to six feet from an infected person,” Director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. James Hughes said. “We’re not totally on top of this by any means. I don’t [make predictions] but we have to stay ahead of this and treat this as the urgent global public health threat that it is.” Preliminary tests suggest that cocktails of the antiviral Ribavirin and steroids may have some effect on the disease. “We’re anxious to see how it looks in cell culture, in the test tube,” Hughes said. Last Friday, President Bush added SARS to the short list of diseases for which people may be quarantined. Currently, quarantine officials are meeting planes returning to the US from Asia in an effort to contain the spread of SARS. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is considering developing an in-flight video to educate airplane passengers about the disease. Australia and Thailand are also taking aggressive measures to prevent the spread of the SARS epidemic.