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BU Monitoring Zika Virus Outbreak

No travel cancellations planned

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BU is  monitoring the Zika virus outbreak in Latin American countries where BU students are studying and has provided precautionary information to students and staff abroad. The University has no plans at present to cancel upcoming spring, summer, and fall programs overseas.

“We are in touch with our program directors and students about how best to stay safe,” says Willis Wang, vice president and associate provost for BU’s Global Programs. “We have posted a travel alert on our Global Programs website, with links to various other pages.”

The symptoms of Zika, a virus transmitted by the Aedes mosquito, are usually mild—fever, rash, conjunctivitis, and joint pain—and the disease rarely kills. But for pregnant women, the virus is believed to be responsible for a recent surge in cases of microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads, which can result in lifelong developmental problems, and in some cases, premature death. In rare cases, it can be sexually transmitted. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new interim guidelines last week for preventing sexual transmission.

There is no vaccine for the disease, and the illness is generally treated with rest, fluids to avoid dehydration, pain relievers like Tylenol, and avoiding contraindicated medications such as aspirin. Preventive measures include wearing long sleeves, staying in screened or air-conditioned places, using mosquito nets when sleeping, and using government-registered bug repellents.

The University is referring students and staff abroad to the State Department and CDC websites for the most up-to-the-date information about the outbreak. Besides the CDC, BU is in regular touch with the World Health Organization and the State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council.

“We do our best to pass travelers to those sources, since those are the medical and public health professionals,” says Joseph Finkhouse, Global Programs associate director of health, safety, and security. “We are also in daily contact with our professional organizations and colleagues at peer institutions.”

Wang says the University’s International Travel Risk Policy requires students and staff to register BU-related travel and provides information about riskier destinations, appropriate precautions, and other matters.

Global Programs currently has 8 students in Guatemala and 19 in Ecuador. Meanwhile, about 60 students were posted in Honduras and Nicaragua last month through Global Brigades, a national nonprofit sending student volunteers to work on health and inequality issues, Finkhouse says.

“An as-yet-undetermined number are going to Panama in May,” he says. “There is also a small student organization going to the Dominican Republic over spring break, and a Questrom School of Business MBA student group going to Guatemala” during break. These three groups will total about 30 students, Finkhouse says. In addition, a small group of students is expected to travel to Puerto Rico over spring break as part of the Community Service Center’s Alternative Service Breaks program.

BU “provides safety trainings to student organizations before they depart,” he says, “and health, safety, and security are always a central topic of Study Abroad predeparture meetings.”

Zika is spreading so rapidly—with approximately three dozen cases in the continental United States reported among returning travelers—that “as spring approaches, the only countries in the Americas likely to be left off the list are Canada and Chile,” according to Finkhouse.

The University is not aware of any pregnant students or staff  in the areas where outbreaks have occurred. “If individuals are pregnant, they should avoid travel to the affected areas if possible, and if they are currently pregnant and in those areas, they should seek consultation with a physician,” says Judy Platt, director of Student Health Services, which has posted Zika information here.

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Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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