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Health & Wellness + Science & Tech

No Flu Panic

While H1N1 continues to spread, extraordinary measures on campus not considered likely

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This negative stained transmission electron micrograph (TEM) shows re-created 1918 influenza virions that were collected from supernatants of 1918-infected Madin-Darby Canine Kidney (MDCK) cells cultured 18 hours after infection. Courtesy of the CDC

The H1N1 flu, also known by the politically incorrect name swine flu, is now officially a phase six pandemic. “This means only that this flu has spread worldwide, not that it has increased in virulence,” says David McBride, director of Boston University’s Student Health Services. “The severity of the illness has remained the same.”

As such, University health officials are not planning any extraordinary new strategies to fight the flu’s spread and for the moment do not foresee the need for any dramatic measures when large numbers of students return at the start of fall semester.

This spring’s H1N1 flu is the first flu pandemic declared by the World Health Organization since 1968, when the Hong Kong flu killed an estimated one million people. Thus far, 163 deaths worldwide have been attributed to H1N1. Since it was first identified in late April, the flu has swept through more than 70 countries, with most cases — more than 20,000 — reported in the United States.

The first confirmed case at Boston University, a resident at the Goldman School of Dental Medicine, occurred in May. As with most flu infections, the patient fully recovered. Since then, Student Health Services has reported a handful of additional probable cases, including seven currently. “Health practitioners are no longer testing for the presence of H1N1,” McBride says, “because treatment is similar to treatment for seasonal influenza-type illness.”

In the past 100 years, there have been three major flu pandemics: in 1918, 1957, and 1968. During the 1918 pandemic, the first wave hit during the summer, causing numerous illnesses but relatively few deaths. A deadlier wave occurred in the fall, killing an estimated 50 million to 100 million people worldwide.

Some experts foresee a second wave of infections in the current pandemic. “The Boston Public Health Commission is warning that it could be worse in the fall,” McBride says. “If this happens, the University will act accordingly, depending on the severity of the outbreak. Right now, it’s too soon to make any predictions.”

In the meantime, McBride is advising members of the Boston University community to remain home if they feel ill. Proper hygiene, including washing hands often with soap and water and covering the nose and mouth when coughing, is important. He says that Student Health Services is recommending that any influenza-like illness be treated as if it were swine flu.

Generally, people who catch the flu and recover gain immunity to the virus, McBride says. “It works similarly to a vaccine,” he explains. “When you’re exposed to the live virus, your body develops antibodies to resist it.”

Earlier this week, Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services, confirmed that vaccines for swine flu are being tested. Depending on availability, McBride says, the University will offer the vaccination. “We offer the seasonal flu vaccine,” he says, “so I don’t foresee any reason why we wouldn’t offer a swine flu vaccine.” He adds that there are no plans to require a vaccination.

During the past two months, school districts across the country, including some in the greater Boston area, have canceled classes to try to slow the spread of the virus. In May, SDM’s Post-Doctoral Orthodontic Clinic, where the BU resident who contracted the flu worked, was closed for five days. McBride says it is possible but unlikely that such a measure will be needed again.

“As we’ve seen consistent spread throughout the city of Boston, the concept of shutting down in order to isolate the virus becomes less effective,” he says. “However, the BPHC recommends that if we see a clustering of flu-like illness in a specific area, we close that unit.”

Since April, the Boston Public Health Commission has recorded 441 confirmed cases of swine flu in the city, and one associated death. Massachusetts has confirmed 1,153 cases. Of the 20,000 confirmed cases nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 45 deaths in 15 states.

The latest figures from the WHO report 36,000 cases of swine flu and 163 deaths worldwide.

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

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