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Updated: Swine Flu at College

Parent information on a possible swine flu outbreak at colleges

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The H1N1 virus - swine flu - first appeared on college campuses in the spring of 2009 and campus officials and health experts began bracing for a major fall outbreak of swine flu at colleges around the world. The virus is easily passed, particularly in the close quarters of dorm rooms where a sneeze can carry droplets six feet away.

“Flu is always serious,” says Dr. Joel Forman, Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Community and Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “Swine flu is no more serious than other flus." What makes swine flu notable, he adds, is not the severity - most cases in the spring and summer of 2009 were relatively mild - but the speed at which it has spread, its timing and the way it has captured public attention.

Normally, influenza season runs from late November to March, and its most serious complications impact the very young and the elderly. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, some 200,000 Americans are hospitalized with “regular” influenza each year and 36,000 die.

But H1N1 leaped to attention in the spring and summer of 2009, and it hit teens and young adults particularly hard. By August, there were more than 43,000 confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus in the United States and experts estimated the actual number at well over a million, including people who were ill and did not seek help. University health centers everywhere began bracing for fall.

By September 2009, four college students had died from complications relating to the virus, and so many kids were sick, colleges were no longer running lab tests but diagnosing cases based on symptoms. Between August, when classes first began, and mid-November, more than 80,000 college students had come down with the disease on the 263 college campuses - population 3 million - being tracked by the American College Health Association. But, health experts said cautiously, the disease may have peaked the week of Nov. 7-13, when ACHA statistics showed that just 95% of the universities in their study had new cases, rather than the 98% of the week before. By the end of January 2010, new reports were coming in from just 45% of the schools and the number of new cases had fallen from the alarming 6,300+ per week of fall to about 500. The ACHA estimates that more than 89,000 college kids had contracted the disease between August 2009 and January 2010.

Virtually every campus has emergency plans in place for dealing with various scenarios, from a campus of mildly ill students and faculty to a serious outbreak. These plans include quarantined dorms, visits from health and food service personnel, and preparations for mass immunizations. Colleges are also concerned about what happens to the roommates of sick students, and some have set aside healthy quarantine areas or temporary housing for them.

The CDC is recommending that everyone under age 24 be vaccinated, so look for two flu vaccines: one the usual blend based on Asian influenza trends, and the other for H1N1. Shipments of the H1N1 vaccine continue to arrive at campus health centers, county health clinics, Kaiser Permanente and via other medical channels, with priority given to patients at highest risk. But getting vaccines to the right sites and then inducing college kids to get one proved problematic at first. By mid-November, just 43% of the colleges in the American College Health Association study had any supplies of the vaccine in their campus health clinics, and just 1% of their students had been vaccinated. Those numbers improved dramatically over the winter. By the end of January 2010, 86% of U.S. universities had vaccines on hand, and 9% of their students had been vaccinated, although on some campuses, the immunization rate was up to 25-30%.

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