MÉRIDA, VENEZUELA - A flu scare has shut down schools and public places here, but University of Minnesota study abroad students are still going to class.
Mérida, home to the university's largest study-abroad program in Latin America, is the epicenter of the country's newest H1N1 outbreak. The disease has so far caused three confirmed deaths in and around the city of about 200,000, with 56 cases confirmed and many more suspected, according to the state's health minister.
On Monday, Mérida Gov. Marcos Diaz ordered the closing of all public spaces covered by a roof, including bars, movie theaters and nightclubs. The 30,000-student University of the Andes suspended its classes for the week, and almost all private institutes closed as a precaution.
However, because of time constraints, the institute that hosts the University of Minnesota's Learning Abroad Center remains open. That prospect unnerves some students.
"The American students are the only ones attending classes," said 21-year-old Meghan Buhler, a Spanish major from Watertown, S.D. "I understand the reasoning behind it because we're not able to extend our semester longer; however, it is an outbreak. The city is slowly shutting down and it's a dangerous disease that spreads rapidly."
Venezuela President Hugo Chavez announced that the government has 2 million doses of a seasonal influenza vaccine and has sent the majority of the medicine to Mérida, where vaccinations began Friday.
Twenty-seven students are studying in Venezuela through the Learning Abroad Center, including 16 students from the University of Minnesota and others from Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio Wesleyan. While many students received a seasonal flu vaccination in the United States, more than half remain unvaccinated.
The multilingual VEN-USA institute canceled its daily English classes but cannot do the same with the American students because many have booked their return flights to coincide with the scheduled May 3 ending date.
VEN-USA Dean Leunam Fonseca said he decided to keep the school open without consulting the University of Minnesota because he saw no other choice.
"We have to maintain that there's always class," Fonseca said. "First, because it's an ethical question: If we have a program we have to complete it, right? The other is that we have a very important obligation with the universities."
Plus, Fonseca said, much like the U.S. outbreak in 2009, the risk has been inflated by a "state of collective hysteria."
Students safer in school
Holly Zimmerman Le Voir, the University of Minnesota program director for the Venezuela program, supported Fonseca's decision to keep the students studying.
"Nobody in our school has been sick, so our school is still open," she said. "We think that the students are actually safer coming to school than going out and being exposed" to the virus.
Ironically, the most populated places are at vaccination sites. On Tuesday morning, a line of more than 400 people stretched outside one site a half-hour before it opened.
The virus is the same H1N1 that the United States saw in 2009 but with a different seasonal strain, said Michael Osterholm, director of the U's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, and the vaccinations should be effective.
Many students are skeptical of the seriousness of the outbreak and say their families appear to be watching but not worrying.
"First, my mom called to check to see if the shot I got in November was good," said 21-year-old Travis Brew, a global studies major from Chanhassen. "She said, 'Be careful, make sure to wash your hands, don't go out in public.' You know, mom stuff."
Robert Downs is a University of Minnesota student and freelance writer.