U.S. colleges will screen some students for Ebola


This photo provided by the CDC shows an ebola Virus. U.S. health officials are monitoring the Ebola outbreak in Africa but say the risk of the deadly germ spreading to the United States is remote. (AP Photo/CDC)

For many U.S. college students arriving from West Africa, this year’s “back to school” routine will include a screening for Ebola.

Although health and university officials agree that the threat of the virus spreading at a college in the United States is small, some schools are taking absolutely no chances, according to an Associated Press report on college responses to the outbreak.

A voluntary temperature check and discussion about the deadly disease will be conducted during their normal, yearly immunizations in a number of schools, including the University of Illinois; the University at Buffalo, Mercer University in Macon, Ga.; Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and the University of Akron in Ohio.

At some universities — Akron, for instance — administrators have asked students to monitor their temperature for 21 days. That’s about the time it can take for Ebola symptoms to show.

As the worst Ebola outbreak in history unfolds in West Africa, The Post's Joel Achenbach explains how the deadly virus wreaks havoc on the human body. (Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)

For at least some of the colleges, the screening procedures seem to have as much to do with calming the nerves of parents as they do actually screening for Ebola, which has claimed more than 1,500 lives in its lastest outbreak. The World Health Organization warned this week that the virus could infect 20,000 people and spread further through West Africa and possibly beyond.

The University of Illinois’s health center director, Robert Palinkas, told the AP that he’s been fielding calls from some worried parents of students who have roommates from the region this year.

“Parents are comforted to know that there is a screening process, that we are alert for it, that we are prepared for it,” Palinkas told the AP.

Federal agencies haven’t issued any guidelines for colleges as the school year starts up. But some local and state agencies have. the Boston Public Health Commission, for instance, issued an advisory similar to the one it sent to hospitals in the city advising college administrators on how to handle a possible case of Ebola. The advisory also clarifies that an actual outbreak is extremely unlikely.

“The likelihood of becoming infected with Ebola virus is very small,” the advisory reads, “unless the person has traveled to an outbreak area AND has had direct contact with blood or body secretions from an Ebola infected person or animal, OR with objects that were wet with the blood or body fluids of someone ill with Ebola virus.” 

The Boston advisory asks administrators to reach out to any students or faculty returning to campus within 21 days of travel to an impacted region. After an interview to determine whether the individual is at high risk for an infection, school officials will provide information on the Ebola virus, including how to monitor for symptoms.

“Asymptomatic persons returning more than 21 days after leaving an outbreak area are not at risk and do not need special follow-up,” the advisory adds.

As Inside Higher Education reported earlier this month, a relatively small number of students from the three countries hardest hit by the outbreak — Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — study in the United States each year. According to the federal government, there are  169 international students  from Sierra Leone, 204 from Liberia, and 95 from Guinea.

There’s a larger population of Nigerian students —  9,728 are studying in the United States this year. So far, there are just over a dozen confirmed cases of Ebola in Nigera, Africa’s most populous country.

Abby Ohlheiser is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.
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