Living up to its pandemic status, the H1N1 virus has affected Bowdoin students studying abroad this semester from Buenos Aires to Cape Town.
As swine flu grew more prevalent this summer, some study abroad programs communicated with students prior to departure dates, alerting them to expect the unfamiliar while traveling.
"They told us we might be stopped at customs to check our health," said Emily Balaban-Garber '11, who is studying in Salamanca, Spain. "If we exhibited signs of the flu, they told us we might not be let into the country."
Cameron Weller '11, studying on IFSA-Butler's program in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the virus is particularly severe, said that her program was diligent in communicating with students before they left home.
"My program sent out conciliatory e-mails before we left assuring us that we were safe to come here and informing us of health precautions to take when we arrive," said Weller. "I ended up bringing prescription Therma Flu with me to take in case I had symptoms."
Louis Weeks '11, who is studying at Trinity College Dublin, said that his university's fervent concern about H1N1 was clear from the start.
"Upon arrival they stressed religious hand washing, and limited contact," said Weeks. "The campus is crawling with Purell stations—there is a dispenser attached to the wall next to every door."
Shortly after her arrival in Buenos Aires, Weller said that many universities were closed in an attempt to stem the virus's spread.
"My orientation period was extended from two weeks to one month because all the universities here shut down for several weeks and classes were pushed back to avoid spreading the illness further," she said.
Balaban-Garber said that swine flu, or "gripe A" in Spanish, has been attracting widespread attention and news coverage in Spain.
"This week in Salamanca it is the celebration of the patron saint, so everyone is going to church to pay tribute. They showed on the news a bunch of people at church kissing the hand of the Virgin Mary and there was a man next to the statue wiping it with sanitary wipes every time someone kissed it," she said.
Weller said that while swine flu does make the news in Argentina, concern is abating as Argentina slides from late winter into more mild months.
"H1N1 has definitely been on the news, but not in a way that is frightening or apocalyptic," said Weller. "I think it was much more dire and scary before I got here, in June and early July during Argentina's coldest months."
Lauren Wilwerding '11, who is spending her semester in Cape Town, South Africa, with the Interstudy program, was diagnosed with the flu about two weeks ago.
According to Wilwerding, she was not tested for H1N1 because she was otherwise healthy, and would have been prescribed Tamiflu in the case of either swine or seasonal flu.
Students on study abroad programs who contract H1N1 are generally healthy to begin with, however, the populations they are visiting may be at greater risk.
"While the general consensus seems to be that H1N1 is not worse than a 'normal' influenza, there is heightened concern when it may affect populations with HIV," said Wilwerding.
"There have been a significant number of fatalities, mostly pregnant women or those with preexisting medical conditions—HIV or Tuberculosis," added Sophie Springer '11, who is also spending her semester in Cape Town.
While Bowdoin students reported that other students on their programs have contracted swine flu, some say the mania surrounding the virus has begun to subside.
"An American student in our apartment was diagnosed with swine flu yesterday and he has been quarantined to his room," said Weeks. "The projected figure here is that three out of four people will get it before the end of the season."
"That being said, the general consensus on campus is that a flu of some kind is inevitable, and we are all just staving it off for as long as we can with lots of water, vitamin C and Purell," he added.
Students said they have found that many of their host country's locals are largely unconcerned about the issue.
"My Chilean family never discusses it," said Sarah Pritzker '11, who is spending the semester in Chile.
"I told my host mother that people at my university had 'gripe A' and she was pretty unfazed and told me that everyone is overreacting," added Balaban-Garber.
While students and locals may be calmer about the threat of H1N1, the anxieties of parents are less easy to quell.
"My parents have been fanatic about H1N1 awareness. They are constantly sending me updates and making sure that I keep up with the news," said Pritzker. "If anything happens in Chile, I get an e-mail."
"I know a lot of parents on the program were concerned, because the program has mentioned how many frantic calls they received pre- and post-departure," said Weller.
While programs have been fielding concerns from parents, Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster said his office has been quiet on that front.
"I've not had a single parent contact me," said Foster. "I would imagine that those different programs...are making their own arrangements and their own plans and communicating with parents."
Both Foster and Director of Off-Campus Study Stephen Hall said that they trusted the judgment of study abroad programs concerning student health.
"I think we would expect the program to understand better what the conditions were like," said Hall. "I can't think of a situation where Bowdoin would override a program's recommendation."
Though study abroad programs have been overwhelmed with concerns about H1N1, they still must contend with the usual safety issues as well.
"HIV is much larger issue in South Africa with somewhere between one-fifth and one-quarter of the population being positive," said Springer. "Also, there are very real daily concerns over violent crime that take precedent over swine flu."
Despite the prevalence of the virus in her host country, Weller agreed.
"Even though Argentina has been one of the most hard hit countries by H1N1, my program is more concerned that we avoid getting pick-pocketed or hailing a stolen cab than by us getting swine flu," she said.
Editor's note: Because the students interviewed in this piece are currently studying abroad, all interviews were conducted by e-mail.