Lake Norman & Mooresville

Colleges cautious about Ebola risk

A recent outbreak of the Ebola virus thousands of miles away has raised concern among local university and college officials that study-abroad programs and independent travel to affected regions could bring the deadly disease onto their campuses.

The virus’ latest epidemic, which has claimed the lives of more than half of its 3,000 victims, has caused Davidson College to cancel a study-abroad trip and spurred many institutions to screen students and faculty who may have traveled to West Africa during the summer months.

In the spring, Davidson officials canceled a trip to Senegal amid early reports of Ebola in West Africa. “We felt reasonably certain that the risk to our group would be fairly low, but we wanted to err on the side of caution,” said Chris Alexander, director of the Dean Rusk International Studies Program at Davidson College.

Each year, the college issues 150 independent grants for students to travel for research purposes, two-thirds of which occur in the spring. Right now, Alexander said, college officials are discouraging students from making any proposals for travel to West Africa until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that it is safe.

The CDC has issued a level 3 warning, urging Americans to avoid nonessential travel to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. It has also recommended travelers to Nigeria and Democratic Republic of the Congo take safety precautions to avoid contact with the small number of Ebola patients there.

The next trip to Ghana is scheduled for summer 2016. Until then, college officials will closely monitor the progress of the virus.

“These kinds of global health crises can change very rapidly,” said Alexander. “We will wait and see where we are in terms of the nature of the pandemic.”

In the weeks before the fall semester began at Davidson College, Dean of Students Tom Shandley issued a statement requesting any student, faculty or staff member with a recent travel history to Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia or Nigeria – the four West African countries in the midst of the worsening epidemic – to contact the college’s health office before attending any classes.

Health officials at the college checked with 16 students and one faculty member whose potential connections to West African countries were later deemed low-risk. Two of the students are native Nigerians but hadn’t traveled to the country over the summer.

The other students and faculty member were part of a study-abroad program May 24 and July 6 in Ghana, a West African country with no reported cases of Ebola. Davidson College has a longstanding program in Ghana that’s offered to students every other summer.

“We ultimately did not identify anybody with a potential for exposure to Ebola, particularly within 21 days of the incubation period,” said Jan Poole, assistant director of student health and counseling at Davidson College.

Divya Khandke, 20, who took part in the excursion to Ghana, wasn’t aware of the epidemic until she returned to the states and was told by her parents. She later contacted by the college. “There was not much talk of Ebola while I was in Ghana,” said Khandke. “None of us traveled outside of Ghana, with the exception of one student who flew into Nigeria before arriving in Ghana at the beginning of the program.”

UNC Charlotte has also taken measures to protect its campus community, spokesperson John Bland wrote in an email.

Although no one affiliated with the university participated in any study abroad programs to West Africa over the summer, the International Student/Scholar Office contacted the university’s 24 West African students and urged them to visit the health center if they showed any signs of Ebola following travel to countries affected by the disease.

Guidance regarding Ebola from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has also been posted on UNC Charlotte’s health-center website.

Bland said UNCC officials would likely not allow any study-abroad opportunities to West Africa until the current situation changes. Only one student has traveled to West Africa through UNC Charlotte’s study abroad program in the past three years.