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Here’s what colleges need to know to prepare for monkeypox

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Colleges have spent more than two years grappling with a public health crisis, the coronavirus, which has disrupted the fabric of their operations and stretched their finances.

Now they faced something else: the spread of monkeypox.

The virus will almost certainly not reach the same level of infection as COVID-19 because it is not as contagious. But the public is jaded and wary of the disease amid the lingering effects of the pandemic, and some campuses have already confirmed monkeypox. Institutions will need to prepare for potential new cases as the fall semester begins.

We spoke with public health experts about how colleges should plan for the next school year, report monkeypox and understand risk factors for their campuses.

What is monkey pox and how is it transmitted?

Monkey pox is a rare disease that until this year was usually concentrated in a few countries in Central and West Africa.

It belongs to the same family of viruses as smallpox, which the World Health Organization declared eradicated by vaccination in 1980. Its symptoms are much milder than those of smallpox. They usually appear as a rash that appears around the genitals, as well as on other parts of the body, including the face, chest, feet, and hands.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the rash can “look like pimples or blisters at first” that often scab over before they heal.

Other flu-like symptoms — fever, chills, enlarged lymph nodes — are also common. They can usually last from two weeks to a month. The virus in the current epidemic is rarely fatal.

It is spread through ways such as skin-to-skin contact or touching objects shared by a person with monkeypox, such as bedding, clothing, or towels. It can also be spread through respiratory secretions through close contact, although scientists are studying how often this happens.

How is monkeypox spreading now and is it likely to be on college campuses?

As of Tuesday afternoon, The CDC has identified nearly 9,000 cases of monkeypox in the US Biden administration last week declared the disease a public health emergency.

At present, monkeypox is mainly spread among men who have sex with men, and is most often contracted during sexual contact. A A New England Journal of Medicine study found that of more than 500 confirmed infections in 16 countries from late April to June, 98% were among gay and bisexual men. It was suspected that almost all of them contracted monkeypox through sexual intercourse.

Because colleges often support individuals in close contact with each other, institutions must plan for monkeypox to become a potentially devastating force, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Health Center.

Colleges have been breeding grounds for other diseases that quickly sweep the population, such as the flu or meningitis, and more recently, the coronavirus. Students are close to each other in dormitories and classrooms, creating conditions for the spread of disease.

However, a disease like the coronavirus is much more transmissible than monkeypox, Adalya said.

How should colleges prepare for monkeypox?

While it’s unlikely that monkeypox will scorch a campus the way the coronavirus did, colleges should still designate an area to isolate those infected, Adalja said. The isolation period for monkeypox is also different from COVID-19: monkeypox can last up to a month, while those infected with the coronavirus are usually required to stay at home for at least five days. 10 days maximum.

Because colleges have battled the coronavirus and other diseases for years before that, they will likely have ideas about where to house infected students, Adalya said.

However, a key element of the monkeypox control plan now is getting the right messaging, said Dr. Sarah Van Orman, chief student health officer at the University of Southern California and past president of the American College Health Association.

Van Orman said it’s a difficult message to deliver in the wake of COVID-19. Public awareness of the disease is high, but colleges must make it clear that the coronavirus and monkeypox are radically different.

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