Is monkeypox the next infectious issue for college campuses?

BOSTON — In about a month, Boston will be woken from its summer slumber – by the annual influx of college students. But will the thousands of young adults set to arrive in September encounter an additional infectious issue on campus besides COVID?

It would appear likely.

Monkeypox cases in Massachusetts aren’t dramatically high – as of last week, fewer than 150 had been diagnosed with the disease since May. But one health professional fears there is the potential for a more serious outbreak once college campuses reopen.

On the surface, there would seem reason for such concern, as the current outbreak of monkeypox seems to be spreading through close contact – sexual and otherwise.

“We know that college campuses are often a place where individuals engage in higher risk sexual activity and they’re also in close contact with many different people,” said Rachel Cox, NP, an assistant professor of nursing at the MGH Institute of Health Professions. “In the dorms, dining halls, they live together, they eat together...they tend to spend a lot of time in close contact.”

Cox would like to see colleges and universities step up efforts now so that they’re ready if cases occur.

“Getting plans in place for isolation for students in a non-stigmatizing way, preparing education campaigns for the college students, like safe sex, maybe contact tracing, maybe limiting the number of sexual partners,” Cox said. “And being prepared to extend their COVID sanitation and hygiene protocols that I know colleges worked very hard to put in place.”

There’s some evidence that’s happening.

Boston 25 News contacted 10 major colleges and universities in the state.

In a statement, Northeastern University said: “Northeastern is actively monitoring cases of monkeypox in the regions surrounding its campuses across North America and in London. We are prepared and equipped to handle cases should they occur, just as we would with any infectious disease. Northeastern has also taken a leadership role by establishing a national surveillance testing system to test for monkeypox at airports and other entry points across the U.S.”

Tufts University said its public health officials are preparing a communication to raise awareness about the disease.

Of course, a potential monkeypox outbreak on campus comes at an unusual time in the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2020, COVID cases have dropped fairly dramatically during summers in Massachusetts – mainly because of outdoor activity limiting spread. But this summer, COVID cases have risen as the BA5 variant, which is regularly infecting and reinfecting even the vaccinated, became predominant.

“It’s another really great reason for schools to get together and to be reevaluating their policies,” Cox said. “Looking at what worked and didn’t work during COVID, making changes and not stopping. We can’t stop infectious diseases; they keep coming, as we’ve seen.”

Cox said that means working through the burnout that so many feel from the pandemic – and understanding that monkeypox is a disease worth preventing.

“We’ve seen a lower mortality rate with this current outbreak; the disease itself still presents with some very severe symptoms,” Cox said. “The rash itself can be excruciatingly painful, leaving sometimes permanent scarring. There are potential complications, especially for people with compromised immune systems. Secondary infections like pneumonia, corneal infections of the eye, even sepsis and rarely death.”

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