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Sars: another risk to weigh

Should fear of the epidemic stop you seeking opportunities abroad? Martin Whittaker considers the facts

Amid China's Sars epidemic, teachers at Hong Lok Yuen International School had to adapt to some new routines. Every morning, the children's temperatures were recorded by their class teacher. Pupils and staff had to wear masks, making it difficult for them to communicate. Air conditioners could not be used amid stifling temperatures, and children had to be constantly reminded to drink to avoid headaches and dehydration.

After the Hong Kong government closed all schools for two weeks, staff and children had to make up for lost time to complete end-of-year tests. But the risks of Sars and disruption at this UK National Curriculum-based primary school in Hong Kong's New Territories haven't put staff off working there.

"In our opinion this should not prevent teachers from applying for jobs in Asia," said one teacher in an email to The TES. "The day-to-day reality of the past two months is nowhere near as horrific as some of the world's media may have suggested.

"The benefits and opportunities that teaching in an international school environment bring far outweigh any stress that this situation brought about. Hong Kong continues to be a city with many opportunities that would not be available in other cities in the world."

At the time of writing, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported 8,461 probable cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and 804 deaths in 29 countries, with no new cases reported since June 19. Travellers were warned against visiting parts of China, although they were no longer advised against travel to Hong Kong. This week, the WHO declared Hong Kong Sars-free, 20 days after the last confirmed case in the territory and lifted the last travel warning worldwide - on Beijing.

How did international schools react to the Sars outbreak? Mike Maybury, executive secretary of European Council of International School, said:

"Schools have taken the threat of Sars seriously but have not panicked.

They have taken all reasonable precautions under their health and safety policies.

"To the best of my knowledge all our member schools provide private medical insurance if the level of local health service provision is thought to be inadequate, and that would cover a Sars case."

But some organisations recruiting teachers to work in China have taken no chances. Voluntary Service Overseas which had 105 people in 16 Chinese provinces - most of them teaching English as a foreign language - decided to evacuate them all at the beginning of May.

Many were working in western provinces with poorer healthcare facilities.

"There were so many unanswered questions," says Chris Roys, VSO's regional programme manager.

"It seemed the risk for us was that a volunteer might have an accident - and as an organisation we do deal with medical emergencies, accidents and illnesses among volunteers.

"And there was a risk if that was to happen they might need treatment at a local hospital, which would potentially increase their risk of contracting Sars.

"This was a debate we had: do we say these are adults who can make their own decisions? Or do we have to take some kind of organisational responsibility? We felt we did have some responsibility."

The Amity Foundation, a Christian organisation in Hong Kong which recruits for volunteer and salaried posts in teacher training colleges in China, took a similarly cautious line, advising its teachers to leave.

"Amity is continuing to monitor the Sars situation," said spokesman Ian Groves. "We plan on making a decision in mid-July about whether to invite teachers to come to China in September for the autumn term."

So should those wishing to teach in China be put off by the occurrence of Sars? Should they err on the side of caution?

If they do, they could be unnecessarily panicking and missing out on an important and exciting part of their working lives, according to Dr Ted Lankester, director of health care with InterHealth, a charity that advises voluntary agencies and businesses on health issues abroad.

"You're vastly more likely to die from a road accident in Balham than you are from getting Sars in China, even if you are in a place where there is an outbreak," he says.

He insists it's a matter of putting Sars into proportion - for example flu is far more contagious and potentially more dangerous.

Keep watch on travel warnings and the latest facts and figures and keep a copy of the suspected case definitions - all available and regularly updated by the World Health Organisation.

"On balance you plan to go unless there is currently an advisory against that particular place," he says. "Do your homework. Be aware. Have the information and be cautiously adventurous, keeping alert to any new outbreaks or worsening outbreaks anywhere near where you might be going."

Ian Groves of the Amity Foundation says it is up to individuals to assess the risks. "I would certainly advise people to enter each situation with their eyes open and really weigh up all factors.

"For example, would you really feel comfortable being hospitalised in a local hospital which is maybe not as sanitary or advanced as the one back home if you caught this disease?

"Are you mentally ready to face the challenges of culture shock, a different languages and now this new health risk? Would you really feel comfortable operating under certain restrictions on travel, social life and social contacts in a country which is seeking to combat this disease?

"I think if you can honestly say that you can accept such things, then you are probably still able and ready to work abroad. But honesty is the key word here."

For the latest information, facts and figures on Sars, see the World Health Organisation's website http:www.who.intenThe Department of Health also carries up-to-date information and travel advice. See charity InterHealth also recommends The Traveller's Good Health Guide by Ted Lankester (Sheldon Press, 2002), available through its website

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