September 3, 2009 — The University of Virginia's Elson Student Health Center is working to prevent cases of H1N1 flu – and to treat students who nevertheless contract the disease.
"I think we are ready. We'd better be ready, because it's here," said Dr. James C. Turner, executive director of the center.
College students have been especially susceptible to the flu. Turner said that might be because of a "young or naïve" immune system, but it is more likely environmental – colleges and universities have a high density of young people living together. "My theory is it's just easier to spread germs in that kind of setting."
Turner spoke Thursday at a media briefing with Dr. Lilian Peake, district health director for the Thomas Jefferson Health District; Dr. Daniel F. McCarter, medical director of ambulatory care at the U.Va. Health System; and Dr. F. Michael Ashby, vice president for medical affairs at Martha Jefferson Hospital. The University and the community have been preparing for a widespread flu outbreak for four years, after an especially deadly strain of avian flu began developing in other parts of the world.
Novel H1N1 influenza, first called "swine flu," has symptoms similar to the seasonal flu that makes the rounds every winter, and so far the virus has not evolved into a more serious illness, Peake said.
Since Aug. 22, when students moved into University housing, Student Health has seen 27 cases of flu, most in the last week. The illness is presumed to be H1N1 because the virus is circulating in the community. Over the summer, 64 students were diagnosed with flu.
Most of the flu has been very mild, Turner said, and all students have recovered uneventfully.
Students who have flu-like symptoms – fever, headache, chills, body aches, fatigue, dry cough, sore throat, stuffy nose, occasionally nausea or diarrhea – should call Student Health before coming in. "We are trying to keep students out of the emergency room and treat them at Student Health," Turner said. Student Health is providing 24-hour-a-day telephone triage.
There isn't enough space to isolate ill students or relocate their well roommates, he added. Student "flu buddies" deliver meals to sick students, who are asked to stay in their rooms.
Rest, plenty of non-alcoholic fluids and a fever-reducing medication such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen are the recommended treatment. Normal activities can resume after 24 fever-free hours off medication.
Information campaigns – on static stickers for mirrors, in Stall Street Journal flyers in bathrooms and on the Student Health Web site – tell students how to prevent the flu and what to do if they get it. The number of cases also is being tracked on the site. And resident advisers have been trained and have been provided with first aid kits that include thermometers.
Next week, Student Health will begin providing seasonal flu vaccine to the 400-plus students who have chronic medical conditions, such as asthma, that predispose them to influenza complications. Those students can schedule appointments online by visiting https://www.healthyhoos.virginia.edu/ and choosing "immunization appointments."
The annual flu and immunization clinic for students has been scheduled for Nov. 5, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., in Newcomb Hall ballroom.
H1N1 vaccinations – an initial injection and a booster shot three to four weeks later – are expected to become available in mid-October. Providing vaccine to all students will be "a program of Herculean proportions," Turner said. Peake said members of the community should contact their primary care physicians for the vaccine.
In the meantime, students should follow the familiar flu-prevention guidelines – wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer, sneeze or cough into your arm or a tissue you immediately throw away and avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
"You cannot wash your hands too much," Turner said.