Health Services, Study Abroad Office Discuss Zika Virus Threat to Fordham Community


Joseph Rienti, Ph.D., oversees Fordham’s study abroad programs as director of study abroad. (PHOTO BY YUNJIA LI /THE OBSERVER)


The Zika virus may not yet be a problem in the United States, but for those studying and traveling abroad, it is a factor that must now be seriously considered.

Currently, Fordham University has study abroad programs in seven countries with active Zika transmission: Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador. Global Outreach (GO!) also has programs in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Ecuador and Brazil, countries with the risk of Zika transmission.

Recently, the GO! Brazil program was cancelled due to concerns regarding the Zika virus.

Jennifer Huang, nurse practitioner at the Lincoln Center campus, said, “Personally, I don’t think Fordham should cancel any GO! trips or Study Abroad because of the recent Zika outbreak,” prior to the cancellation of GO! Brazil.   

“It is our responsibility to warn our students of the possible complications associated with Zika, and if they are exhibiting any signs and symptoms to speak to their healthcare provider to make the appropriate diagnosis,” she continued.

She advised that “pregnant women or those who plan to become pregnant should postpone their trip because of the associated congenital microcephaly.”

The CDC defines microcephaly as “a birth defect where a baby’s head is smaller than expected when compared to babies of the same sex and age. Babies with microcephaly often have smaller brains that might not have developed properly.”

In order to inform the Fordham community about the risks of traveling abroad in these countries, University Health Services sent an email on Jan. 27 describing the symptoms and risks that the virus presents. According to the email, symptoms are “usually mild and include fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis (red eyes).” It continued that “there is currently no vaccine or other preventative medication for Zika virus.”

The email also said that “women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant are advised to postpone travel to areas with Zika virus transmission.” Additionally, “travelers should take precautions to prevent mosquito bites.” Individuals were directed to consult the CDC page on Zika virus.

Huang brought attention to the mild symptoms that accompany Zika infection.

“It’s very mild, and the symptoms depend largely upon the individual,” she said.  “Some people might not even have the fever, the rash or the joint pain.  For some people, the initial presentation may just be pink eye.  We don’t want them to be like, ‘Oh no, I’ve been infected,’ because the only way to really find out is if you go and get tested.”

“Asymptomatic Zika infection is common,” she continued. “Symptoms can develop in 20–25 percent of individuals who become infected with Zika virus, and once a person is infected their bodies develop antibodies and will likely be protected from future infections.”

For those planning to study abroad, Huang advised that “they should really look into the CDC website, because that’s updated pretty much daily about the prevalence of the Zika [virus].”

She continued that students visiting these countries should mainly take precautions  “to prevent yourself from getting bitten.” Some measures she suggested were wearing long pants and long sleeve shirts, using insect repellent, staying in air-conditioned environments and possibly sleeping under a mosquito net.

The University has not altered any study abroad programs due to the Zika outbreak according to Director of Study Abroad Joseph Rienti, Ph.D.

“Our understanding of what we’ve been told by the CDC and Health Services here and by Public Safety is that Zika is mainly affecting fetuses,” Rienti said. “That we care about, but our population tends to not have as many people in that situation.”

He continued that he is “not necessarily” concerned about sending someone who is not pregnant to a country with Zika “because what the CDC is telling us is that it’s not life threatening.”

According to Rienti, keeping students studying abroad informed is essential to keep them safe. These students are informed of risks such as Zika through a mandatory pre-departure meeting, where they are emailed a handbook and are given further instructions.

“Every student is told to check in with their particular country,” Rienti said. “The State Department has lists of every country around the world that we have diplomatic relations with, and has a lot of information on particulars for those countries.” Among these particulars is health information.

“We make sure students have that information,” Rienti continued. He added that students can get travel vaccinations from University Health Services.

Other student resources that Rienti suggested are their physicians, the CDC and World Health Organization websites and the Safe Traveler Enrollment Program, which is available to any U.S. citizen.

“What that does is once you’ve registered, the State Department will provide you with the updates for that particular country,” he said. “And so that gives you information in writing, right there from on the ground where they have people stationed to get you the information if suddenly something like Ebola or Zika got out of control in a particular place.”

Rienti said that Fordham also monitors the safety of different regions throughout the world with the Overseas Security Advisory Council, of which Fordham is a member, as well as the University’s contracted private risk management firm, Drum Cussac. Through these organizations, Fordham receives daily updates on incidents from around the country and the world.

“Those go to numerous people: everyone in the Study Abroad Office staff gets those updates, people in the Provost Office get those, and then that information is all shared as it needs to be,” Rienti said. “And decisions are made based on that.”

He also recommended that all members of the Fordham community traveling abroad should register with the Fordham University Travel Registry System.

“It’s from that registry that the university is able to contact the people whom might be affected by various incidents, whether they be medical or political unrest,” Rienti said. “There’s a number of different things that can happen.”

For Rienti, the precautions taken and information distributed in response to the Zika outbreak are essential in “safeguarding [the students], the faculty, administrators and anyone who’s traveling.”