Colleges Get Advice on Monitoring for Ebola Exposure

September 03, 2014

Colleges and universities should identify students and faculty and staff members who have traveled in the past 21 days to four West African countries where Ebola outbreaks are occurring to assess the chances that they may have been exposed to the deadly virus, according to new guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

They should also encourage people who have traveled recently to Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, or Sierra Leone or to monitor their health for three weeks after returning and notify campus health officials if they become sick, the federal agency advises.

Even though the chances that any student will fall ill are remote, student health centers’ staffs should be aware of the signs and symptoms of Ebola, which, in its early stages, could include fever, chills, and weakness, says the advisory, which was posted late last week. It includes links to public-health information for health-care workers.

"These guidelines reinforce what a lot of colleges are doing already, but it would have been nice if they’d come out two weeks ago," when students were arriving and health centers were unsure what to do, said Craig M. Roberts, an epidemiologist with the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s student health service.

About 10,000 students from the four West African countries are enrolled at American colleges and universities, and about 95 percent of them are from Nigeria, Mr. Roberts said.

At Wisconsin, officials identified 20 students from those countries, five of whom had gone home over the summer. All have been asked to monitor their health for 21 days, said Mr. Roberts, who heads a coalition at the American College Health Association on emerging public-health threats.

Some colleges are taking the temperatures of all students and staff members who return to the campus from the affected countries. The colleges are distributing thermometers so they can check daily until the risk of contagion has passed.

The CDC also recommends that all nonessential travel, including education-related trips, to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone be postponed "until further notice."

Travelers to Nigeria, where the outbreak has been less severe, should take extra precautions to protect themselves and, before booking travel to that country, keep in mind that the centers’ advice could change if the situation there worsens.

The advisory warns that the health-care systems of the affected countries are being severely strained as the outbreak grows. "Even if students and faculty are not planning to be in contact with people who are sick with Ebola (such as in health-care settings), other safety factors related to their travel need to be considered," it says. "For example, a traveler injured in a car accident may have to visit a hospital where Ebola patients are being cared for."