NKU prepares to protect students from potential Ebola outbreak

When Jeff Iker returned home from his first trip to Nigeria two years ago, he knew that he would love to return to the country again someday to visit the children he and a group of others met and worked with. In September, Iker made the trip back to Nigeria for two weeks and upon returning home, he was worried people might treat him differently out of fear of catching Ebola.

“Nobody really treated me different, except for a couple of people who said things like ‘Hi Jeff, welcome back, do you have Ebola?’,” Iker, the coordinator of new student orientation, said. “I was actually really surprised when I got off the plane and my girlfriend kissed me right on the lips.”

Jeff Iker with a child during his trip to Africa. Iker went to Nigeria and was concerned when her returned people would assume he got ebola.
Jeff Iker with a child during his trip to Africa. Iker went to Nigeria and was concerned when he returned people would assume he got Ebola.

Even though Iker was present in Nigeria before it was declared Ebola-free, NKU did not require him to self-quarantine or undergo a health screening to make sure he was free of the virus. To protect students, staff and faculty, NKU does have a protocol in place in case a student would become infected with and report any infectious disease.  

Interim Director of Health Counseling and Student Wellness Dr. Ben Anderson says that the university has a couple different levels of plans for communicable diseases.

“If you Google communicable disease protocol you will find the plan or protocol if somebody on campus contracts some type of contagious illness,” Anderson said. “And there’s a list in there of what they consider reportable and non-reportable illnesses.”

According to Anderson, the protocol was written and approved in 2011, but is currently being revised by the University.

“I do know there are some plans underway to update the emergency response protocol for the whole campus for a number of issues, not just sickness but any type of campus wide emergency.” Anderson said. “I know that there are some people at the university working on updating all of those policies.”

If University Housing or Health, Counseling and Prevention Services (HCPS) are notified of a student diagnosed with an infectious disease, the current protocol requires them to contact the Dean of Students, who will then evaluate the situation with the Director of HCPS, to determine the risk to the university community in accordance with the recommendations of the local health departments and the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Students that are diagnosed with an infectious disease will have the option of returning home or remaining in isolation on campus to prevent the spread of the disease to others on campus.

Iker believes it is important for the University to update the policy in light of the current Ebola scare.

“I don’t think these people are in a position to assume that nothing is going to happen,” Iker said. “I think it is part of their job to kind of plan for these things in case they happen.”

While the university as a whole has a plan in case of infection on campus, the study abroad office also has a set of plans in place to keep students safe from the virus.

Study Abroad Advisor Alyssa Roby says that the study abroad office is closely monitoring the locations of the virus everyday, to make sure that all study abroad trips are safe for students at the time of travel.

“I think the hype and the actual disease are really important to us in the study abroad office,” Roby said. “Not only are we really concerned about making sure our students are really safe when they go abroad, we are also concerned about them being too worried or too anxious to travel to places that haven’t even been hit by the ebola virus.”

According to Roby, the closest trip to the current Ebola outbreak is a trip to South Africa.

“We have one going to South Africa which is pretty far away from where the epidemic is,” Roby said. “We would definitely cancel the trip if we felt it wasn’t safe closer to the start date.”

According to infectious disease specialist and visiting faculty, Dr. Alan Cohen, there is no need for panic at the moment and there is no reason to cancel travel to areas surrounding the outbreak where no confirmed cases of the virus have been reported.

“The United States has nothing at this point to really panic about, but they will anyway,” Cohen said.

Dr. Joe Mester, associate professor in biological sciences, concentrates in microbiology, immunology and virology. Mester is currently writing an article about the Ebola virus with Dr. Cohen.

Mester believes that a lot of the fear behind Ebola derives from the fact that the public health agencies didn’t see it coming.

“In some ways it seems that Ebola kind of snuck up on public health agencies like WHO (World Health Organization) and CDC,”  Mester said. “I think it caught a lot of folks by surprise. And I think that there is this fear that is unexpected and we don’t know a lot about it, so that really heightens the fear aspect.”

According to the CDC website, the US has had only four confirmed cases with one death. West Africa, however, has had over 14,000 confirmed cases which resulted in over 5,000 deaths.

“It’s a legitimate concern,” Roby said. “But I think as long as students have the right information and take the advice given by the government, they should be fine.”

On Thursday, Nov. 20 the Office of Education Abroad will be holding a current events panel to discuss the current Ebola crisis. A number of panelists will help differentiate between the actual crisis and the epidemic of panic. The event will take place from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. in SU 108.

“What we also did just as a department is on our website, our health counseling website, we put some facts about Ebola,” Anderson said. “So we put that information on there and we provided links to the CDC and WHO and the Northern Kentucky Health Department. So all of their information on those diseases are on our website and available for students to look at as well.”