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Campuses Are Likely Flu Targets

Two students with flu-like symptoms have gone home, one is isolated

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Students on campus can stay healthy and help prevent H1N1 by getting plenty of sleep, eating well, and exercising. Wash hands often with soap and water and use alcohol-based hand cleaners. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

When H1N1 hit last spring, it caused widespread panic worldwide, but the illness did much less harm than feared. Now a report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology warns that the virus, commonly referred to as swine flu, could infect half the U.S. population this fall and winter, hospitalizing up to 1.8 million people and causing as many as 90,000 deaths.

While some remain skeptical about such dire predictions, there is little doubt that whatever punch the virus delivers, college and university campuses will be among the hardest hit. That’s because crowded dorms and classrooms are prime breeding grounds for airborne illnesses.

Vanguard forays of H1N1, declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization last spring, already have appeared; according to a September 5 article in the New York Times, more than 4,000 college students have been infected, 2,000 of them at Washington State University.

Since April, Boston University has confirmed two swine flu cases: a resident at the Goldman School of Dental Medicine became infected in May, and a Charles River Campus employee fell ill over the summer. In both cases, the patients fully recovered. And this week, University health officials identified three cases of influenza like illness (ILI). Dr. David McBride, director of Student Health Services, says that we will not have confirmation of the pathogen causing influenza like illness in most cases as the state lab is no longer accepting specimens. He says ILI will be managed the same, regardless of the cause, swine flu, seasonal flu or other viruses. McBride says two of the students with ILI have gone home, and one has been isolated in a private room. He says that, consistent with recommendations from state and federal health officials, the University is advising students with flu-like symptoms to go home.

“Swine flue is coming, no doubt,” says McBride. “It’s definitely going to stress our system and change the way normal day-to-day work gets done.”

Peter Fiedler, vice president for administrative services, is heading up an H1N1 influenza task force to prepare the BU community for a potential outbreak. The committee is working to revise the absentee policy, develop online instructions, and secure housing that isolates infected students, he says.

Below are frequently asked questions regarding swine flu — and what to do if (or when) it hits BU.

What are the symptoms?
Swine flu presents much like any seasonal flu, with fever of greater than 100.4 and cough or fever and sore throat. You may also have body aches and stomach symptoms.

How does it spread?
The virus spreads mainly through coughing or sneezing. “Always cover your mouth,” McBride says, “and cough or sneeze into your sleeve or a tissue, not into your hands.”

What can be done to stay healthy?
Get plenty of sleep, eat well, and exercise. Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Using alcohol-based hand cleaners is also effective, particularly before you eat; hand sanitizer dispensers are in all dining halls and in the GSU. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, since germs spread that way.

If I think I have swine flu, should I go to the doctor?
It seems counterintuitive, but students who have swine flu symptoms should not routinely seek medical attention, says McBride. “Rest is the fastest road to recovery,” he says. “Isolate yourself, eat healthily, and drink plenty of fluids. See a doctor only if your fever persists for more than four days, if you’re unable to keep down liquids, or if you have difficulty breathing.”

If my roommate gets the flu and I don’t (yet), what should I do?
The University will likely isolate students who have influenza-like illnesses, according to McBride. Roommates of a sick student should wash their hands often and disinfect high-touch surfaces — doorknobs, computer keyboards, desks, lamps — with Clorox wipes.

What happens if there’s a major outbreak on campus?
According to Fiedler, the University has set aside 60 rooms to isolate infected students. A larger-scale initiative that would include setting up a barracks-style infirmary is in the works.

Should I wear a mask?
Masks help prevent the spread of infection by trapping tiny, virus-laden droplets expelled from coughing or sneezing. Student Health Services will provide masks, and McBride encourages infected students to wear them. It is not necessary for noninfected people to wear them.

Does the seasonal flu vaccination protect against swine flu?
People who have received a seasonal flu vaccination should not consider themselves protected against swine flu, McBride says. Nonetheless, he recommends that everyone be vaccinated against both seasonal and swine influenza, because “if seasonal and swine flu commingle, there’s a higher chance of mutation that could potentially create more virulent strains of both viruses.” Know also that because the flu is a virus, antibiotics are not effective and won’t help anyone recover.

When will the swine flu vaccination be available?
The state of Massachusetts is scheduled to receive 1.8 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine by mid-October, which means BU will begin administering the vaccine in November. It typically takes 30 days to build up a resistance after receiving the vaccination. “Unfortunately, this won’t help us during fall semester,” says Fiedler, “but it will help prevent infections in the spring.”

If I get swine flu now, will I become immune?
Yes, says McBride. However, it’s not yet known whether patients who contract swine flu now will be immune if the virus mutates.

What is a flu buddy?
A flu buddy is a close friend or roommate who will shuttle in food, fluids, and homework assignments when patients are too sick to leave their rooms. “That way,” McBride says, “sick students can self-isolate, preventing additional spread.” He recommends choosing a flu buddy now, before the virus hits.

Should I go home if I get it?
Infected students whose families live within a reasonable distance of campus should go home, McBride says, but only if they can get there using nonpublic transportation.

Do I need a note from a doctor to return to class?
No, says Fiedler. Professors will allow students to return to class, no questions asked.

How will I make up my classes if I stay home?
The University is working on a system that will allow students enrolled in large lecture classes to watch online, says Victor Coelho, associate provost for undergraduate education. As for completing course work and receiving credit, “we’re looking at a whole range of options,” he says, “from extending finals to allowing independent projects to make up for missed tests and labs.”

Will H1N1 affect study abroad spring semester?
There are no restrictions on travel because of flu anywhere in the world, and Boston University International Programs does not foresee delays or changes to its programs, according to Urbain DeWinter, associate provost for international education.

Additional information is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and the Boston Public Health Commission.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

2 Comments

2 Comments on Campuses Are Likely Flu Targets

  • Anonymous on 09.09.2009 at 9:52 am

    Flu Shots on Charles River Campus?

    The MED campus is offering free flu shots later this month. When will they be offered on the Charles River campus for employees?

  • Art Jahnke on 09.09.2009 at 1:28 pm

    Re Flu shots on CRC

    Shots for seasonal flu,–not for H1N1– will be available on the Charles River Campus by late next week. Employees will be notified by e-mail.
    Art Jahnke
    Executive Editor

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