Campus readies for possible flu outbreak this fall
Along with their computers, iPods and school supplies, a few university students may be bringing along the Novel H1N1 Influenza A virus, also known as the swine flu, when they come to Champaign-Urbana for the fall semester, and campus officials are urging faculty and staff members to prepare for a possible flu outbreak early in the semester.
Freshmen and transfer students will be moving into the residence halls Aug. 20, followed by returning students on Aug. 22; classes begin Aug. 24.
Since the Novel H1N1 virus began infecting people in Mexico and the U.S. in March and April, the virus has spread to more than 70 countries, causing the World Health Organization to declare it a pandemic in June. As of Aug. 14, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District had confirmed five cases in Champaign County. There have been 3,425 cases in the state and 17 deaths.
“I think it’s important to note that we do anticipate receiving cases in Champaign County and on campus, but it’s not time to panic,” said Todd Short, director of emergency planning in the Division of Public Safety.
“What we are facing is more likely an early flu season in fall instead of winter, not a pandemic like the 1918 flu,” said Dr. Robert Palinkas, director of McKinley Health Center. “It’s very unlikely that there will be a need to cancel all classes and send everybody home. I don’t think we’ll get to the point of telling healthy people to stay home.”
The classic symptoms of the seasonal flu and H1N1 are identical – sudden onset of a high fever, body aches and cough - so it may be difficult to tell without the aid of definitive tests run by designated state labs, if a person has H1N1 or a strain of the seasonal flu.
“Early influenza-like illness in a patient in a community already known to have Novel H1N1 in circulation would lead most doctors to conclude that they were dealing with a Novel H1N1 infection,” Palinkas said.
People who contract H1N1 are typically sick for five to seven days. In accordance with the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the UI is urging students and faculty and staff members to stay away from work or school until they have been fever free, without the use of a fever-reducing medication such as Tylenol or aspirin, for at least 24 hours.
Students will be encouraged to return to their family homes until they’re well, but those unable to do so will be encouraged to isolate themselves in their campus living quarters with plenty of hydrating liquids to drink, disposable tissues, thermometers and fever-reducing medications.
ìIt is particularly important that faculty members assist in helping to reduce exposure on campus, such as developing reasonable absence requirements, considering alternative distance-learning options, promoting good habits in the classroom and most important, encouraging people who are sick to stay home,” Palinkas wrote in the e-mail message.
McKinley Health Center expects to receive its supply of the seasonal flu vaccine soon and may begin dispensing the vaccinations shortly thereafter, Palinkas said.
McKinley expects to receive an adequate supply of the seasonal flu vaccine for the campus community’s needs, including faculty and staff members. All students are being encouraged to get the seasonal flu vaccine, unless they have an allergy to eggs or another condition for which the vaccine would be contraindicated.
“The vaccine for seasonal flu, the common flu that occurs annually and typically peaks in February in Illinois, does not protect against H1N1 flu,” Palinkas wrote. “Most experts agree, however, that vaccination with the seasonal flu vaccine early in the fall will help reduce the chance of having a flu-like illness confused with the more serious H1N1 flu.”
A vaccine for the Novel H1N1 virus is in clinical trials, but might not be available until mid-October at the earliest, Short said. “We’re hoping to have enough for everyone, but we just don’t know how many we’re going to get.”
Since people born after 1957 seem to be the group most easily infected by H1N1, “the healthy person that’s age 60 probably doesn’t have much to worry about with H1N1,” Palinkas said.
However, people at greater risk include pregnant women, people who live with or care for young children and people with compromised immune systems or chronic medical conditions such as asthma or diabetes.
The Infectious Disease Work Group, a cross-campus work group, has been meeting weekly to develop guidelines to help units deal with medical concerns, personnel issues, information management issues and academic matters that may arise from a flu outbreak.
The group hopes to have the guidelines available by the time the semester begins or shortly thereafter.
McKinley Health Center and Public Affairs will update the campus community on the availability of vaccines and other flu-related matters periodically throughout the semester.