Ebola Impacts Western Washington Study Away Programs

For most Americans, the Ebola epidemic is just another scary headline; a disease that has been hiding quietly behind ice bucket challenges and a new round of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Ebola is spreading exponentially in Western Africa, but very few Americans are planning on traveling Sierra Leon, Guinea, Liberia, and Nigeria, so who really cares? There is one group of people in Western Washington, however, that cannot think so lackadaisically about the dangers of Ebola— college students planning on studying abroad.

In the last week, the Center for Disease Control issued a travel recommendation advising education-related travel to affected regions of Africa to be postponed until further notice,” and universities in Western Washington are following this advice. In an email sent on Sept. 22, the University of Washington informed staff and students that the school is restricting “… all nonessential travel to Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leon,” the countries where new cases of Ebola are spreading the fastest. The email also hints at the possibility of additional restrictions; “We (the University) will continue to monitor the progress of the disease and revisit the restrictions as necessary.”

The University of Washington explained their concern with students and faculty traveling affected areas, “Even if students and faculty are not planning to be in contact with people who are sick with Ebola (such as in health care settings), other safety factors related to their travel need to be considered. For example, a traveler injured in a car accident may have to visit a hospital where Ebola patients are being cared for, which could put the person at risk. Also, because the health care system is severely strained, resources may not be available to treat both routine emergency health needs among visiting US citizens.”

While you might expect students to be disappointed by their trips being canceled, David Lin, a senior premed student at the University of Washington, is happy with the school’s decision; “Ebola is spreading faster and faster, it’s smart of UW to let people know their programs could be canceled because we don’t know how many cases of Ebola there’ll be next quarter or the quarter after that.”

Unlike the University of Washington, PLU doesn’t have study away programs scheduled in affected countries during the 2014-2015 school year, however, some Lutes are planning on studying abroad on the African continent over the next nine months. Hanna Zielke, a junior education major, was considering traveling to Namibia over J-term. While she acknowledges that her choice to not study away was mostly financial, she said, “Reading things about Ebola was really scary. I remember reading something that said by January, there could be a million cases of Ebola. That’s so scary because I wouldn’t be too far away from those countries. What about February?”

The World Health Organization and the CDC are asking the same questions as David and Hanna; what about February? March? August? According to the WHO, since the epidemic began in March, 2014, there have been approximately 6,300 cases of Ebola. As of Sept. 30, 2014, the disease has killed more than 3,000 people. On Sept. 23, 2014, the CDC published a study that estimated that the number of new cases  of Ebola in Sierra Leon and Liberia are doubling every 30-40 days and are doubling in Liberia ever 15-20 days. Using this information, the CDC estimated between 500 thousand and 1.4 million active cases of Ebola by Jan. 20, 2015.

Beyond January, the there are too many variables to make accurate predictions, however, the CDC acknowledges that the disease will continue to spread. With so many cases of Ebola being projected by January, it is hard to imagine that the outbreak will remain localized in Western Africa.

So far, PLU has not distributed campus-wide information about the Ebola outbreak. Students are not traveling to currently affected areas this academic year. At the current moment, the situation poses little danger to PLU programs. The CDC website states that, “at this time, there is no risk of contracting Ebola in other countries in the West African region where Ebola cases have been reported.” The trip to Namibia, therefore, has not yet been canceled. However, the situation in West Africa is ongoing. This could mean that PLU students will see their travel plans for J-term and spring semester canceled in the upcoming weeks or months. Students should continue to pay attention to the headlines. It could be important to have a backup plan if the situation in West Africa continues to worsen.

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