Simple strategies can combat flu on campus

Elizabeth Shewan, Staff writer

Every year, from about October to May, influenza strains wreak havoc on the temperate climates of the United States in what we call flu season.

However, this year’s influenza has been particularly bad: It has infected more people, caused more deaths and spread more concern.

The flu is always a concern on college campuses, where thousands of students live, take classes and eat together.

“I think this year the flu has taken on a scary aura due to TV coverage,” said Judy Smith, Ph.D., executive director of Wellness at Mercyhurst.

As the Mercyhurst campus has been fortunate so far this year, having relatively few laboratory-confirmed cases of the flu, Smith encourages students to resist the impulse to give into fear.

There are also plenty of strategies that students can adopt to help protect themselves from the flu. Practicing good hygiene is the best defense, health officials say.

To avoid the flu and other diseases, students should wash their hands often and periodically sanitize door knobs, light switches and other frequently touched surfaces. Keeping one’s hands away from one’s face is also effective. Touching of the face allows the flu virus to get onto hands which in turn allows it to be transferred to objects like desks and doorknobs.

However, most college students who do contract the flu can weather it just fine, especially with the help of antiviral medication.

Nevertheless, students who think they may have the flu should stay out of class and go to the health center or a doctor as soon as possible.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “clinical benefit is greatest when antiviral treatment is administered as early as possible after illness onset. Ideally, treatment should be initiated within 48 hours of symptom onset.”

Flu symptoms differ from a common cold in that they typically appear all at once, and include symptoms not usually seen in colds such as a high temperature and nausea, as well as congestion and coughing.

Just as in the general population, students with respiratory problems are more likely to be adversely affected by the flu, and are especially encouraged to go to the health center if they think they may have it.

This year’s flu season has been especially dangerous for the elderly and young children.

The Washington Post, citing a government report, said influenza killed 22 children in the period of Feb. 10-17. That number represents the most flu-related deaths among children in a single week since this season’s outbreak began in fall 2017, and it brings the total of flu-related deaths in children to 84, the Post reported.

According to the most recent data from the CDC, 9.8 percent of the deaths reported in the week ending on Jan. 27 were due to pneumonia and flu. This is well above the expected epidemic threshold of 7.3 percent.

The reason behind the severity of the year’s flu season is that the flu vaccine used has not been as effective at preventing the flu as it usually is.

Every year, the flu vaccine is created with recommendations from the World Health Organization to protect people against strains of flu that are expected to be most virulent in the coming year.

Certain prevalent strains this year came as a surprise.

Some strains in the family of Influenza A are not protected against at all in this year’s vaccine.

Health-care providers do still recommend getting a flu shot, even now, if you have not already.

“If you’ve had your flu vaccine, you’re 30 to 40 percent less likely to come down with the flu,” Smith said. “It won’t absolutely prevent you from catching the strains that are out there this year, but it will reduce severity.”