Science & Research, University News

Zika virus may affect R.I., study abroad plans

Virus causing birth defects leaves U. programs unaffected, some external programs canceled

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2016

Thousands of miles may separate Providence from the epicenter of the Zika outbreak, but viruses have a way of making the globe seem small.

“We do expect that we will have a case (in Rhode Island),” said Rebecca Reece, medical consultant for the Rhode Island Department of Health and assistant professor of medicine at the Alpert Medical School.

The Rhode Island Department of Health recently activated a registry of pregnant women who have been exposed to the virus. The department is also encouraging practitioners to make ultrasounds more readily available to test for fetal abnormalities, Reece said.

“Zika is at the forefront because there are fetal complications with pregnant women,” said Cynthia Capra, nurse practitioner and clinical care manager at Health Services. “The illness itself is not much; it’s a fever, joint pains, conjunctivitis. … The symptoms are very similar to other travel viruses.”

But the virus is still a threat, Capra said. Last month, the World Health Organization officially designated Zika a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, putting it in the company of the 2009 swine flu, 2014 polio and 2014 Ebola outbreaks — the only other outbreaks ever to receive this designation.

But even before the virus makes its way north, Rhode Island officials find reason for concern. Many of the locations where Zika is currently active, including Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Honduras, Cape Verde and Mexico, are popular destinations for the state’s diverse immigrant population, the Providence Journal reported Feb. 1.

They are also popular destinations for students looking to study abroad. Though the University does not currently have any students enrolled in their sponsored program in Brazil, there are several students who have applied for the fall semester, said Janet Kalunian, associate director of operations for the Office of International Programs, in an email to The Herald.

“Our office continually monitors such situations and alerts both students who are abroad and those who will go abroad in the future,” Kalunian wrote. “For students going abroad in the next academic year … we will continue to monitor (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s) recommendations and share relevant recommendations with students.”

Though the CDC has not issued a travel alert for Cuba, students in the University program there were recently notified about the Zika threat, Kalunian wrote. In the notice, the students were told that “there is no immediate threat to your health or safety” and were provided with a list of CDC resources regarding insect repellant use and safety.

But other students have seen their study abroad plans thwarted. Marjorie Pang ’18 was enrolled in the School for International Training’s three-country study abroad program, which includes five weeks in Brazil but recently learned from her scholarship office in Singapore that she is not permitted to take part in the program because it is too dangerous.

“I talked to a doctor from Health Services to ask about the virus, and she didn’t think there was a great threat for me right now,” Pang said. “I would have gone if not for my scholarship office preventing me from doing so.”

As is the case with all outbreaks of infectious disease, the line between caution and safety is hard to draw. When Zika is on the table, it is easy to lose sight of the other diseases that pose an equal, if not greater, concern for traveling students, Capra said.

For example, Pang now plans to study abroad in Argentina, Vietnam and South Africa, countries where malaria is among the diseases against which students need to take precautions.

Meanwhile, the Zika virus continues to expand its range. Last week, a Brazilian study showed that culex mosquitoes can harbor the virus, said Andrew Mallon, CEO of Calista Therapeutics, a Rhode Island biotechnology company that is developing genetically modified mosquitoes as a mechanism to curb the outbreak.

This development is significant because “culex is a genus that lives throughout North America,” Mallon said. “West Nile Virus was able to spread rapidly throughout the U.S. because it was in culex mosquitoes. Up to now, we have underestimated the potential damage the Zika virus is going to have.”