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What students studying abroad should know about Zika virus

Belmont’s study abroad program will continue with trips this summer in countries affected by the Zika virus outbreak and will educate students on preventing the virus.

“Right now, from all that’s come out from the CDC, and OSAC, which we get briefings on from the U.S. State Department, it does not seem that this would affect us in terms of canceling programs, as the majority of our students are not of the target group that are of the most of concern, which is pregnant women,” said Shelley Jewell, director of study abroad.

The World Health Organization declared the Zika virus an international health emergency on Feb. 1 at a news conference in Geneva.

Belmont’s Maymester programs in countries with the outbreak include Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica.

Although Argentina is not on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of affected areas, the Office of Study Abroad views it as a country with a potential to have the outbreak, Jewell said.

The office discourages pregnant students from participating, and all students must submit a medical form in order to participate, as with other study abroad programs, she said.

The virus causes microcephaly, a birth defect that leads to a child’s head being smaller. Its effects may include issues with movement and balance, delay in development milestones, intellectual disability, hearing loss, vision problems and difficulty eating, according to the CDC.

The virus is transmitted via mosquitos bites and can last up to two weeks, during which time people could transmit the disease through sexual activity, Jewell said.

Because of the risks involved, Katy Wilson, assistant dean of students and former director of Health Services, will advise students on preventative measures according to the CDC guidelines, Jewell said.

Some tips to prevent the Zika virus include wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants, staying in air-conditioned areas, treating clothing with permethrin, using Environmental Protection Agency registered mosquito repellents and sleeping with a mosquito net, especially in countries like Haiti where students may not have access to air conditioning, Jewell said.

Students hoping to study in these countries have veteran leaders like John Niedzwiecki for Costa Rica and Martha Minardi for Haiti and the Dominican Republic, who have experience protecting and educating students on health during the chikungunya outbreak three years ago, she said.

With the strong faculty presence and preventative measures, Jewell said students will most likely be safe, and the risk is mainly for pregnant women.

“Everybody has their own level of risk tolerance. We even experience West Nile virus in the states, and it’s quite likely that the Zika virus will come to the U.S. There have been a few reported cases,” Jewell said. “We want everyone to be comfortable with where they’re going. So if potentially they feel better with Europe, then I would encourage that, but I would also say that as long as you take these recommended precautions then most likely you are going to be safe.”

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