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Iowa universities work to educate students on monkeypox infections

A photo of Iowa State University's campus.
Christopher Gannon/Christopher Gannon
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Courtesy of Iowa State University Facebook
State universities are preparing for monkeypox infections.

As college classes resume, universities across the state are ensuring students have access to information about the monkeypox virus and how it spreads.

Iowa has reported 17 monkeypox cases. Since the virus is spread through close skin to skin contact, Iowa State University public health coordinator Kristen Clark said it’s especially important to raise awareness among students living in congregate housing – where close quarters can put them at higher risk.

“We want to be sure that we don't cause excess concern, but we do want people to have the information they need to make good decisions and be able to protect themselves," Clark said.

A map of where monkeypox cases have been reported in Iowa, as of August 25.
Iowa Department of Public Health
A map of where monkeypox cases have been reported in Iowa, as of August 25.

Many colleges are providing online resources to prepare students for a potential infection.

At the University of Iowa, the college has created an online resource dedicated to addressing student questions about monkeypox. For those living on campus, university administration is recommending an isolation period of 2-4 weeks if a student is infected.

The University of Northern Iowa’s student health center will serve as a hub for information on testing and vaccines. Executive director of student health and wellbeing Shelley O’Connell said the university will also push out mitigation strategies through social media.

“The Student Health Clinic's social media posts will focus on prevention, vaccinations, what to do if you believe you have symptoms, and how to be tested,” said O’Connell, in a statement to IPR.

Director of The Center LGBTQIA Student Success, Susan Harper stands in front of a rainbow couch on campus.
Dee Hill
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Iowa State University
Director of The Center LGBTQIA Student Success, Susan Harper, said that the center is distributing educational materials and protective barriers for sex in order to help prevent monkeypox.

Iowa State University is employing many of the same strategies, while also working to partner with organizations on campus in order to reach more students. Clark said one of the initiatives will be to provide LGBT organizations with educational materials in order to reach queer students on campus.

Director of The Center for LGBTQIA at Iowa State University, Susan Harper, said the center will focus on encouraging prevention measures – like hand washing and using safety barriers during sex.

“There may be conversations that students are more willing to have in this space than someplace else,” Harper said. “Just because of the role that centers like this have played historically in community health for queer people.”

Although men who have sex with men have disproportionately been impacted by the virus, monkeypox can infect anyone, regardless of sexuality. Harper said the organization is working hard to ensure gay or bisexual communities are not stigmatized in their messaging.

“We’re really trying to make sure that messaging comes through that it's not your identity that puts you at risk. Anybody can get this,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control released specific guidelines this week for higher education institutions on when to test students, how to contact trace and recommended PPE equipment in the case of an infection. The organization recommends young people have conversations with sexual partners about monkeypox and use protective barriers during sex.

"It's not your identity that puts you at risk. Anybody can get this."
Susan Harper, director of ISU Center for LGBTQIA Student Success

The universities are working on connecting students with vaccines, but there’s a limited supply. The Iowa Department of Health announced last week that it would focus on at-risk populations for the around 2,500 doses allocated to the state by federal officials.

These populations include men who have sex with men and have had multiple partners in the past month, household members of those who have been infected and healthcare professionals.

Clark said Iowa State University is helping students identify if they may be eligible for the vaccine.

“It's constantly changing. It's a challenge to keep up with it all,” Clark said. “And try to make sure that people aren't confused about what their options are, and what is necessary and not necessary to protect yourself.”

All three state universities noted that they would continue to modify their safety policies based on guidance from federal and state health organizations.

Kendall is Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA.