As the new school year kicks off, universities across the country are back in crisis management mode, this time, to address monkeypox. The Public Health Agency in Canada recently reported a slowing down in the spread of cases, but experts say that risk remains high in campus settings.
While monkeypox is less contagious than COVID-19, Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto, says it’s a school’s job to be prepared.
“(Campuses) are not asexual settings, and with students in such close proximity, they need to be educated on how to protect themselves,” he told CTVNews.ca in August.
Universities are adapting the resources they created during the COVID-19 pandemic to tackle monkeypox, which the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency in July.
“We have learned many valuable lessons throughout the pandemic about the best ways to manage infectious diseases on campus. Just as we are monitoring the trajectory of the pandemic, we will continue to monitor the emerging monkeypox virus,” Andrea Lawson, a spokesperson for McMaster University in Ontario, said in an email.
SCHOOLS FOCUS EFFORTS ON ‘CLEAR MESSAGING’
A little more than 1,200 cases have been reported in Canada as of Aug. 31.
While some US universities have started reporting monkeypox infections, there are no similar reports of the virus circulating in Canadian schools.
But without clear messaging and education about monkeypox’s symptoms and when to get tested, campuses could become breeding grounds for infection, Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist at McGill University in Montreal, told CTVNews.ca in August.
“There also needs to be a streamlined or a corridor of service whereby if somebody thinks they may have symptoms suggestive of monkeypox, they can be safely and quickly evaluated,” he said.
The University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver has developed a Communicable Disease Prevention Framework which, while not specific to monkeypox, will be handed to students to offer a plan of action if they’re infected with the disease. The school will also provide testing services on campus for all students.
“Any students experiencing symptoms of monkeypox are asked to call and book an appointment to determine their eligibility for testing,” Lauren Mathany, director of student health services at UBC, told CTVNews.ca in an email.
The University of Toronto has created a monkeypox information page outlining symptoms and health resources available for students or employees if they’re infected.
It also recommends students call the number of its occupational service for “confidential, judgment-free guidance and support” regarding testing and isolation protocols.
The University of Guelph, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo said public health units would take the lead in monkeypox cases regarding assessment, contact tracing and potential exposures. All three institutions ask students who think they may have symptoms to contact public health.
Some universities are going further to reach students by employing social media.
McMaster University says it will be running “educational campaigns” on its social media to educate students on symptoms and offer information on vaccination clinics for those who are eligible. The school also says that it has made similar information available to all students living in its residences.
The University of Alberta is following a similar route and says it will offer “factual information” to students and faculty on campus to reduce stigma and ensure a “safe and healthy community.”
“Education is a key tool to help limit the spread of any illness on our campuses — including in our residences — and as we’ve proven throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, when our community works together … we can have a safe semester,” Michael Brown, a spokesperson for the University of Alberta, said in an email.
PUSH FOR VACCINATION CLINICS ON CAMPUS
The Public Health Agency of Canada told CTVNews.ca in an email that more than 80,000 doses of the smallpox vaccine have been sent to provinces and territories and are working to secure more for a “future supply.”
Canada’s current vaccine stockpile status wasn’t disclosed.
Health officials have recommended vaccinations for high-risk groups, including health-care workers and men who have sex with men and have recently had multiple sexual partners.
But Bowman says vaccine clinics will become crucial to keep monkeypox from quickly spreading around university campuses.
“We’ve been very hesitant to just have open clinics related to this. But (they) can be really, really helpful, both psychologically and practically,” he said.
Some universities have already started offering vaccine services.
For example, according to Carleton University, Ottawa Public Health will offer a monkeypox vaccination clinic on its campus on Sept. 7 for all eligible students, faculty and staff.
UBC says it is already working with public health partners to procure the vaccine for eligible students and will follow the country’s public health guidelines to determine eligibility for vaccination.
The University of Toronto, McMaster University and Toronto Metropolitan University will direct eligible students to city-run vaccine clinics.
PLANS TO REDUCE STIGMA STILL LIMITED
Most universities didn’t respond to CTVNews.ca about a plan to reduce the stigma that students from the LGBTQ2+ community might face in connection with monkeypox.
Even though monkeypox has primarily spread among men who have sex with men (MSM) in Canada, there is a high risk of it spreading across communities through “intimate physical contact,” Dr. Zain Chagla from St Joseph’s Healthcare told CTVNews.ca in August.
Vinh says that if universities are going to educate students, then destigmatization should be a “critical component,” and it should be made clear that monkeypox is not an MSM OR LGBTQ2+ disease.
“(Monkeypox) is transmitted by intimate contact. Sometimes, that intimate contact can be by sex, but you don’t need to have sex to have intimate contact, and you certainly don’t need to have homosexual sex,” he said.
UBC listed resources available for the students who may face stigma, including clubs and community groups. The University of Alberta says it has plans to “reduce stigma” but didn’t offer specifics.
With files from CTV News Kitchener