Georgetown’s Interim Chief Public Health Officer Ranit Mishori recommended precautionary measures for students traveling in Latin America and the Caribbean as a result of the outbreak of the mosquito-born Zika virus, in a campus-wide email sent February 2, as well as for students studying abroad in affected countries.
“I am writing to share information and current guidance about an emerging health threat called the Zika virus,” Mishori wrote. “This information is particularly important for those who are currently visiting one of the countries where Zika virus transmission has been documented, or are planning a trip to one of the regions or countries affected.”
The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention has issued a Level 2 travel alert, cautioning visitors to countries across the region, including Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Puerto Rico. The World Health Organization has also designated the virus as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, a distinction reserved for cases that require immediate international action and pose threats beyond national boundaries.
The disease, which is transmitted through infected mosquitoes, has reportedly infected three people in Washington, D.C., including one pregnant woman. Aside from symptoms such as fevers, rashes and joint pains, the Zika virus has been linked to causing babies to be born with head and brain anomalies, a condition known as microcephaly. The virus has no known cure and a vaccine is yet to be developed.
The CDC is still investigating the possibility of the virus’ transmission through sexual contact and blood transfusions, as well as its possible connection to a paralysis-inducing disease known as Guillain-Barré syndrome.
The Office of Global Education, which is responsible for the university’s study abroad program, is monitoring and alerting the seven students preparing to or currently studying in the CDC Travel Alert Level 2 areas about the situation. Students were contacted by the OGE and by their local programs with information about risks, symptoms and prevention techniques.
Director of Global Education Craig Rinker stressed the importance of keeping students who are abroad safe.
“The health and safety of study abroad participants is of the highest importance, not just to the Office of Global Education but to the entire Georgetown community,” Rinker wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We are monitoring the progression of the Zika Virus through CDC and WHO for all regions and locations.”
Rinker said that the OGE has taken the necessary precautions in communicating with students and ensuring their safety.
“We have been in direct communication with students who may be impacted by the Zika Virus,” Rinker wrote. “Not much information about the virus is known at this time. Therefore, we are strongly encouraging students to stay informed through the information at the CDC and WHO as well as their local program contacts.”
Barbara Anne Kozee (SFS ’17), who is studying abroad in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, said that aside from the presence of new public health posters, business goes on as usual for most city residents. Kozee said that she is not too concerned about becoming infected, expressing more worry about the Dengue and Chikungunya viruses, which can also be carried by the same mosquitoes that carry Zika.
“It is definitely a possibility, but I am not worrying too much about it,” Kozee wrote in an email to The Hoya. “As someone who doesn’t plan on becoming pregnant, the virus is just like any other, with vomiting, fevers, and diarrhea. I’m actually more concerned about Dengue, because this virus poses the threat of hemorrhagic fever and death.”
Despite the adverse impact on health in the region, Kozee credits the Zika virus with sparking conversations that could potentially positively affect the region. Controversy has surrounded the policies of countries such as El Salvador, which has advised women to avoid getting pregnant in the next two years because of the risk of birth defects in babies afflicted with the virus.
“The Zika virus has helped illuminate the burden put on women when public health officials release formal statements essentially saying, ‘Just don’t get pregnant’ while denying access to these resources. In the Dominican Republic, as in many countries in Central America, abortion is illegal and contraception is not readily available,” Kozee wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I think this has sparked important conversations in Latin America about women’s reproductive rights and machista culture.”
Carolyn Vilter (COL ’17), who is taking a leave of absence this semester to intern at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, Mexico, said she is taking precautions against the virus.
“I’m planning to wear insect repellent whenever I leave the city, and I’ve treated some of my clothing with insect repellent so I’ll be better-protected when travelling and hiking,” Vilter wrote in an email to The Hoya. “My dad put ‘Don’t get bitten’ on my trip to-do list, and that’s pretty much the goal.”
However, Vilter said she believes the issue is not confined to Latin America and stressed the need to treat the spread of the virus as an international concern.
“Pretty early in the crisis, airlines began refunding tickets and many people, including my parents, on my behalf, began doubting the wisdom of travelling to Zika-affected countries,” Vilter wrote. “The problem isn’t Latin America’s alone. Areas as far North as D.C. and beyond seasonally harbor the mosquitoes that carry Zika. In the long term, this is a global issue.”
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