On Monday, two new cases of the Zika virus were confirmed by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, bringing the total number of infected people in the state to four. One of the infected people was confirmed as an unidentified student at Lehigh University.
With Penn so close to Lehigh and featuring a very large, international student body, Student Health Service was ready to respond.
SHS had been aware of the Zika virus since the illness hit the news last May. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out several travel advisories for the Caribbean area, Central American area, South America and Mexico in January, SHS began actively uploading information on its website.
Ashlee Halbritter, the Campus Health Initiatives director, said there have been active efforts to keep both students and faculty alike informed.
“It’s a very fluid situation and there is so much that is unknown,” she said. “With that said we have updated our website consistently as new information has become available and have pushed prevention messages to our colleagues across the campus.”
Although the national push for travel screening has died down due to the end of the Ebola epidemic, SHS continued screening students who had come in for clinic appointments knowing there could be enormous implications for any kind of travel they had recently completed. The ongoing practice has made addressing the Zika virus easier, as it has become a greater issue in recent weeks.
In the case that a student screened positively for the virus, SHS would draw a blood sample and cooperate directly with the Pennsylvania Department of Health to coordinate the sample’s processing and testing.
As there is currently no proven cure for the Zika infection, any treatment of patients at SHS would be purely supportive in order to remedy common symptoms such as fever, rash or joint pain. The most concerning risk associated with Zika is a debilitating birth defect of the brain called microcephaly, which causes a child to be born with a smaller head. This may be experienced if a woman is infected with the virus during her pregnancy. Unfortunately, this effect can only be prevented by taking precautions against contracting the virus.
Currently, SHS’s main concern is to promote means of prevention so that none of these symptoms arise in the first place. While the virus is typically spread by mosquitoes, much like malaria, dengue and yellow fever, a case of mosquito-borne contraction in the United States has yet to be reported. Within the United States, the main means of contraction has been sexual transmission, which can be averted by using condoms.
People who are travelling to affected countries are encouraged to take extra measures to prevent mosquito bites, including wearing long shirts and pants, using insect arepellent, mosquito nets and treating clothing with permethrin.
Giang Nguyen, executive director of SHS, said that in the weeks before and after spring break students should remain very aware of the means of prevention. “It is important in any community where there is a lot of international travel to be aware of the global nature of conditions out there,” he said. “We promote preparedness.”
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