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Ebola worry curtails student travel plans

Some colleges cancel programs in Africa; others proceed cautiously.

A flier on the disease was given out at the airport in Lagos, Nigeria.Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images via AP

For months, Cindy Emefa Coffee had planned a research trip to Ghana, on Africa’s west coast. There, the Wellesley College junior would explore turning organic waste into animal feed, a process that could aid one of the world’s poorest regions.

But then the Ebola epidemic struck, killing people by the hundreds just a few countries over from Ghana. Would Coffee, 21, remain in Massachusetts, or head to Africa?

She went.

“Yes, I did have concerns,” she said in a telephone interview last week from Accra, the capital of Ghana. “But I don’t regret being here.”

But while some students and their colleges are sticking with long-scheduled academic travel to Africa, other colleges are canceling trips there.

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A group of medical students and faculty from the University of New England in Maine scrapped plans to go to Ghana last week. The University of Illinois suspended its fall study-abroad program in Ebola-stricken Sierra Leone and said it would rigorously screen students returning from Western Africa.

Harvard University administrators issued an advisory last Friday urging students and staff members to avoid all but essential travel to the three countries at the epicenter of the outbreak — Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

The letter from Harvard’s provost said that anyone affiliated with the university who in the past four weeks visited those three nations or Nigeria, which has a small number of cases, should contact the school’s health services office for a telephone assessment before returning to campus.

More than 1,000 people in West Africa have died from Ebola in recent months, and last Friday, the World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency.

The worst Ebola outbreak in history has emerged as US universities prepare to dispatch students for study abroad during the fall semester.

Boston College has two students bound for Ghana. Tufts University has seven students studying there for the fall semester, said Sheila Bayne, director of the university's study-abroad program. They arrived late last month and will stay until December.

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Two other Tufts students took leaves of absence to do research in Senegal, she said. Senegal shares a border with one of the affected countries, Guinea, but has not reported any Ebola cases.

Tufts students in Ghana have not expressed concerns to administrators, Bayne said. Only one parent responded to an advisory Bayne e-mailed students and their families, thanking Bayne for the note and letting her know her son was safe.

“People realize that the disease is at present contained,” Bayne said. “We’re hoping that it stays that way.”

Coffee spoke with relatives and academic advisers, including project coordinators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before deciding to go ahead with research in her native Ghana. She went amid assurances from university administrators that they are closely monitoring medical reports from western Africa.

Since arriving last week, Coffee has driven up and down the country, through cities and the countryside, carrying a supply of hand sanitizer and aerosol disinfectants everywhere she goes, even though Ebola is spread by close personal contact and does not travel through the air. She avoids public transportation to lessen contact with other people.

And under no circumstances does she eat bush meat — food made from the remains of monkeys, bats, and rats that is popular in parts of the region and possibly responsible for transmitting Ebola from animals to humans.

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“My parents said, ‘As long as you don’t eat this meat, you should be fine,’ ” Coffee said.

Though no Ebola cases have been reported in Ghana, tucked in the middle of coastal West Africa, the nation is only hours away from countries hit by the virulent disease.

Ghanaian authorities have recently blocked flights and restricted immigration in an effort to prevent the arrival of the disease in the country of 25 million people.

Donna A. Patterson, a professor of African studies at Wellesley University specializing in health issues and Coffee’s adviser, said people were right to have concerns about Ebola spreading to Ghana.

“They’re legitimate because the borders are so porous, and people can continue to move.” she said.

To the west, Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) buffers Ghana from Ebola-stricken Guinea and Liberia, two countries where more than 1,000 people have been infected, more than 600 fatally, according to the World Health Organization.

To the east, Nigeria is two countries over from Ghana, but its biggest city is only a six-hour car trip away. A small cluster of cases has been reported in Lagos.

The outbreaks began in March but spread rapidly last month. Underscoring the danger of the disease and the urgency of global efforts to stop its spread, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised its alert for Ebola to the highest level Thursday.

Coffee’s work may involve coming into proximity with human waste that contains bodily fluids, through which Ebola is spread.

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The researcher says she will be on guard, even as she continues to help the region in her own way.

Globe correspondent Trisha Thadani contributed to this report. Oliver Ortega can be reached at oliver.ortega@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ByOliverOrtega.