Monitoring the Ebola Outbreak

August 1, 2014

Alarm over the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa has spread -- as has the virus, which has killed nearly 700 people in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. The outbreak’s effects on research and international-education programs, however, have been modest. The countries with Ebola cases are not popular destinations for research or study-abroad programs. And few students from the region enroll at American colleges and universities.

Some institutions are shying away from West Africa because of the outbreak. A sports team from a major university planned a visit to Senegal, a country that has not yet been affected, in mid-August. Now, the university has asked for a risk-assessment report and might cancel the trip, a risk manager who works with colleges and universities said. The risk manager asked not to be identified and declined to name specific colleges. Another university, he said, has decided to discourage its students from traveling to the affected countries. And a third university that currently has a group on an African trip has adjusted the group’s travel schedule to minimize time spent in West Africa.

The State Department has Fulbright Programs in Guinea, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Two U.S. students are currently on Fulbright grants in Nigeria, a State Department official said. A third student headed to the region is postponing her grant because of the outbreak, another department official said.

By and large, however, international-education leaders said they doubted the Ebola outbreak would affect international research, study-abroad programs or international student enrollment.

The outbreak has hit Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia hardest. Nigeria has had just one reported Ebola case: that of a Liberian man who began exhibiting symptoms on a July 20 flight to Lagos and died in a Nigerian hospital days later.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday warned travelers to avoid nonessential travel to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. It has not issued a travel warning for Nigeria. A CDC official said colleges and universities should monitor the CDC’s travel notices when making decisions about study-abroad or research opportunities.

Of the four countries affected by Ebola, Nigeria participates in by far the most educational exchange with the U.S. The Open Doors Report, a survey conducted annually by the Institute of International Education, found that in the 2012-13 academic year American colleges and universities enrolled more than 7,300 students from Nigeria. More international students came from Nigeria than from any other country in Africa. By contrast, 79 international students hailed from Guinea, 123 from Sierra Leone, and 172 from Liberia.

“I know we have students from Nigeria,” said Sam Biederman, director of public relations for the New School, a university in New York City that draws roughly 30 percent of its student body from countries outside the U.S. “I don’t have any numbers on the other countries.”

Biederman said the New School would follow the CDC’s lead when it came to making decisions about international programs in the context of the Ebola outbreak.

“At this time we are not concerned about enrolling students from those nations,” he said.

More students from American institutions studied abroad in Liberia and Sierra Leone than in Nigeria. But none of the countries affected by Ebola attracted many study-abroad students. Sierra Leone hosted 122 study-abroad students from the United States in the 2012-13 year. Liberia drew 83, Nigeria had 23, and Guinea had four.

Goucher College, a liberal arts college in Maryland that has since 2006 required all of its students to study abroad, has not sent a student to Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea in several years, said Eric Singer, Goucher’s interim associate dean for international studies.

“We do have students studying in other West African countries, notably Ghana,” Singer said. “[And] if we go back several years we had a student who did study in Nigeria.”

Goucher’s education abroad programs have been free of problems so far, he said, health scares and humanitarian crises notwithstanding.

“We haven’t had a negative experience in the years since we’ve required all our students to study abroad,” Singer said. “But there’s no way to predict what’s going to happen tomorrow or next month.”

Brian Whalen, president of the Forum on Education Abroad, which develops standards for U.S. education abroad programs, said he hasn’t heard of any study-abroad programs that the Ebola outbreak has jeopardized.

In recent weeks he’s heard more trepidation about study-abroad programs in Israel than in the Ebola-stricken regions, he said.

“I’m sure any universities and colleges that do have programs in those countries will take a very close look at the health and safety issues that result from the Ebola virus outbreak … and really assess whether students and researchers should be in those countries conducting research or study abroad programs,” Whalen said.

On Thursday, Emory University announced that a special facility in its hospital would soon receive a patient with Ebola, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

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