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Canada’s universities keep a wary eye on Ebola outbreak

International student offices encourage those from affected countries, or recent visitors there, to watch for symptoms.

By ROSANNA TAMBURRI | SEP 17 2014

As the outbreak of Ebola virus in West Africa continues to grow, Canadian universities are taking precautions to prevent the spread of the disease in this country, even though officials say the risk of that occurring is very low.

The arrival of international students this fall for the start of a new academic year has raised concerns that those coming from affected countries could potentially introduce the disease to Canada. Universities’ international student offices are contacting students from those nations and encouraging new arrivals and those who recently visited the region to check their temperature for fever and watch for symptoms of the disease. Some institutions are also suspending study-abroad and other education-related travel to the region.

Ryerson University’s office for international students services emailed students from affected countries in early September, advising those who had recently visited their home countries to check their temperatures twice daily for 21 days, the maximum incubation period, as recommended by Ontario public health authorities. It invited students with questions and concerns to contact the office. The university opted to send emails to select students rather than to the entire student body via Twitter and other social media sites to avoid unnecessary fear, said Arif Abu, coordinator of Ryerson’s international student services office.

The office spoke to frontline international student officers to educate them about Ebola, its symptoms and how it is spread and to ensure that they didn’t take undue measures that could be construed as racial profiling, Mr. Abu said. The office has no way of knowing how many Canadian students and faculty members have traveled to the region, he added.

The Public Health Agency of Canada and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development issued travel advisories warning Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel to countries most affected by Ebola: Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Other countries including Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Senegal have seen fewer cases of the virus. Some provincial health authorities have issued memos directly to universities and colleges regarding students and staff from affected areas. In late August, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health sent a memo to the province’s university and college administrators. “There are currently no cases of Ebola virus disease in Canada and the risk to Canadians is very low,” the memo said. It advised those who have recently returned from affected regions to self-monitor their temperatures and anyone showing signs of the disease to seek immediate medical attention. Symptoms include fever, muscle pain and unexplained bleeding or bruising.

The Canadian Bureau for International Education estimates that about 5,500 students from affected West African countries were studying at Canadian universities at the end of 2013. The majority of those students were from Nigeria and Senegal, two of the nations that have been least impacted by Ebola. Fewer than 500 were from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“The reality is the risk is very small and it’s being managed well by international education professionals,” said Jennifer Humphries, CBIE’s vice-president of membership, public policy and communications. Still, because of the lessons learned from the 2003 SARS outbreak, institutions are being vigilant, she added.

CBIE sent an email to its member institutions in September to inform them of the risk and how to prepare for it. It included information issued by the World Health Organization on how to detect and manage suspected cases and travel advisories by the Canadian government.

At Université Laval, a committee of university officials and medical personnel meets regularly to monitor the situation, said Andrée-Anne Stewart, a spokeswoman, in an email. She said the university has contacted international students from affected countries and has cancelled study-abroad activities scheduled in those regions. She said 35 foreign students from affected countries were scheduled to arrive in the 2014 fall semester.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 4,000 confirmed and suspected cases of Ebola have been detected and more than 2,000 patients have died since the outbreak started in late 2013. There is no indication of a slowdown in the spread of the virus, said the WHO. Meanwhile, the U.S. Centre for Disease Control sent a memo to American colleges and universities recommending they avoid education-related travel to affected areas until the outbreak is brought under control, which it estimated could take six months or longer. It also encouraged institutions to identify students, faculty and staff who have traveled to affected countries and to conduct a risk assessment of each person. It said those who have traveled to those countries within the past 21 days should check their temperature and watch for other symptoms.

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