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How to Prepare Your College Student for a Monkeypox Outbreak

The virus is showing up on campuses, but health officials say it remains rare

Young woman at home covered with blanket checking her body temperature
Marina Demidiuk / Getty Images

​In the weeks leading up to her son’s sophomore year of college, Mary Beth Miller has been stocking up on dorm room essentials, scheduling athletics physicals and researching monkeypox. Miller, 57, wants to be sure that her son, Tyler, has the information he needs to be safe when he returns to class on his Granville, Ohio, campus.

“I don’t know that this will impact him whatsoever because of his age and relationship status, but he needs to be aware of it, and as new information comes out, there needs to be an open line of communication,” Miller says.

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The transmissible virus ​monkeypox has been making headlines.

The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported at least 13,517 cases in 49 states. Several colleges, including Georgetown University and American University in Washington, D.C., and West Chester University in Pennsylvania, have reported outbreaks, leaving parents of college-age kids wondering whether their children are at risk and what precautions they might need to take as they return to campus.

“Monkeypox is usually quite rare and takes a lot of contact to spread,” says Ginette Archinal M.D., university physician and medical director of student health at Elon University in North Carolina. But she cautioned that new information is constantly being collected. “Things are changing all the time.”

What to know about monkeypox

The virus is spread via close, skin-to-skin contact with the rash, scabs or bodily fluids of an infected person. Sex is a common form of transmission, but other forms of close contact, including hugging, kissing or sharing a bed, could also spread the virus. Contact with respiratory secretions or porous objects like clothing, bedding and towels, can also spread monkeypox, health experts say.

“[College students] are frequently in communal housing and frequently exploring their sexuality, which means they may come into contact with people who are infected,” says W. Ian Lipkin M.D., John Snow Professor of Epidemiology and director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University.

Miller, of Hudson, Ohio, has warned her son against sharing towels with his track and basketball teammates. She’s in regular contact with his doctor and watching school communications for information about campus initiatives and potential outbreaks.

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“I’ve shared symptoms and told him what to look for [and] he is willing to listen,” Miller says. “If it affects my children, I want to be informed to the best of my ability.”

The potential for a monkeypox outbreak to spread within dorms has colleges, already dealing with COVID-19, on high alert. Many, including New York University, the University of Texas and the University of Michigan, have stocked up on monkeypox tests. Archinal advises parents to tell their college-age children who are experiencing symptoms — such as pimple-like rashes on their genitals, anus, mouth, hands or feet, or fever, fatigue and muscle aches — to go to the campus health center for testing.

While parents are informing their college students about monkeypox, they may want to make sure family plans are in place in case of illness. Parents lose the right to access their children’s medical records without permission once a child turns 18. Consider having a signed Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) release and medical power of attorney form to give health care providers permission to release and share medical information in the event of an emergency.

Virus prevention strategies for students

Students who test positive for monkeypox will need to isolate for two to four weeks. Ithaca College in New York is providing quarantine housing for students who are experiencing symptoms, and UCLA in California is working to develop isolation protocols in the event of an outbreak. Other schools, including Princeton University in New Jersey, require students with monkeypox to isolate at home or at another location off campus.

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In an effort to control outbreaks, the University of California San Diego, Stanford University and Emory University are among the schools that are testing wastewater for the prevalence of viruses, including COVID-19 and monkeypox.

“It allows us to get a sense of whether a dormitory is infected, in which case we can focus on speaking more directly with the inhabitants,” Lipkin says. “Our hope is that [knowing there is an outbreak in a dorm] will lead people to further modify their behavior.”

For those in high-risk groups, which include men who have sex with men, vaccines are available, Lipkin says. He advises college students to discuss the potential benefits with their health care provider, but mass vaccination is not currently recommended.

"If it affects my children, I want to be informed to the best of my ability."

— Mary Beth Miller

Lipkin also suggests regular handwashing, using paper toilet-seat covers in shared bathrooms, and washing clothing, towels and bedding with detergent in hot water as additional precautions.

“It’s really about commonsense protection against being exposed to infection,” Archinal says.

While it’s important to educate college students about how to reduce their risks, recognize the symptoms, and seek testing and treatment, Archinal stresses that the overall risk to college students is low.

“Even with an increased number of cases, it’s still a rare virus,” she says. “Take it seriously, but don’t panic.”​