Ebola outbreak has UI's attention

Ebola outbreak has UI's attention

The Ebola outbreak in Africa has prompted the University of Illinois to suspend study-abroad programs in Sierra Leone this fall and plan some extra screening for international students arriving from West Africa.

But officials say there's no cause for alarm on campus.

"I think it's always wise to prepare," but officials aren't overly worried, said Dr. Robert Palinkas, director of McKinley Health Center.

About 3,500 new international students are expected to check in at the UI before the start of classes on Aug. 25, and only a few are from the region affected by Ebola, said Martin McFarlane, associate director of International Student and Scholar Services.

The campus last spring had fewer than three dozen students from the four West African countries hit hardest by the outbreak — one from Sierra Leone, 33 from Nigeria, and none from Liberia or Guinea. The bulk of the UI's 8,850 international students come from China, South Korea and India.

Foreign students typically go straight to their campuses upon arrival in the United States, as the university must notify immigration authorities that they are truly students under the terms of their student visa, officials said.

When students check in at the UI, they are immediately referred to McKinley for screening by health-care workers, Palinkas said. Medical staff check for tuberculosis, immunization status and compliance with U.S. health care laws, he said.

The students coming from West Africa this month will likely go through a separate interview and educational process, "so we can be comfortable at least when they're checked in that they looked OK and that they know what to do if they start coming down with symptoms," Palinkas said.

If students fail to undergo the screening at McKinley, a hold is placed on their registration, McFarlane said. About 90 percent of students comply during their first couple of days on campus.

Palinkas said UI medical workers are watching the situation in Africa just as they do any other emerging health threat, such as tuberculosis, last spring's mumps outbreak in the Midwest and the 2009 H1N1 flu virus.

"We do have mechanisms in place. Our clinicians are very in tune with the globalization of our particular population," he said.

If they find a person has become ill, McKinley has special rooms with filtered air systems where patients can be isolated. The rooms are routinely used for patients suspected of having measles, mumps or tuberculosis, for example. The staff would then work with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District and local hospitals to sort it out, Palinkas said.

Any medical clinic in the country could theoretically get a patient who has traveled to another country and picked up a serious infectious illness, he said. Sometimes the infection doesn't become apparent for two or three weeks after exposure, so the person could travel to several cities before becoming ill.

He emphasized that the disease is not as easily transmitted as measles or the flu, and U.S. medical facilities have many more ways to detect and treat the disease than developing countries.

Palinkas has received a few calls from worried parents, including some who wanted the campus to take more extreme quarantine measures.

"There are some people who just want to have everybody in some sort of a dome," he said.

The university didn't have any students studying in West Africa over the summer, said Bo White, assistant director for international health and safety.

But the UI has a "significant" study-abroad partnerships in Sierra Leone, and those programs have been suspended at least for the fall. Officials will revisit the issue for the spring semester, he said.

"We decided it would be best not to put our undergrads in that situation," he said.

White wasn't sure how many students had applied to study there this fall; about 2,000 UI students study around the world each year.

The campus has had to suspend programs in the past because of civil unrest, natural disasters or "geopolitical situations," he said. But this is the first time in recent memory that a health crisis has prompted such action, he said.

"We are prepared typically for Plan B," White said, but given Sierra Leone's public health challenges, "it's hard to have a fallback plan when the hospitals are unable to guarantee that they're able to handle certain things."

Some UI employees have come and gone from West Africa this summer, but he said most of them have lived or worked there for years and are at lower risk.

"Statistically, you have a bigger chance of getting malaria than Ebola," he said.

A deadly disease

Five facts about Ebola hemorrhagic fever, a severe, often fatal disease in humans and other primates (monkeys, gorillas, etc.):

Origin
First discovered in 1976 in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo near the Ebola River. Since then, outbreaks have appeared sporadically.

Cause
Researchers believe that the virus is animal-borne, with fruit bats being the most likely host.

Onset
Symptoms usually begin abruptly and may appear 2 to 21 days after exposure, though 8-10 days is most common.

Symptoms
Fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, and lack of appetite. Some patients may experience a rash, red eyes, hiccups, cough, sore throat, chest pain, difficulty breathing or swallowing, or bleeding inside and outside of the body.

Transmission
Usually through direct contact with the blood or fluids of an infected person, or exposure to objects (such as needles) that have been contaminated with infected fluids.

Sources: U.S. Centers for Disease Control; World Health Organization.

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