Federal health officials say that this year's flu season will be more severe than usual, meaning that college campuses should take steps to reduce risk among staff and students.
Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday said the flu was widespread in at least 46 states as of last week, up from 43 states the previous week. Five children died from the flu during the week of Dec. 28, 2014, to Jan. 3, bringing to total of children who died from the virus during the current flu season to 26.
The officials said flu seasons typically last about 13 weeks, meaning "we're right in the middle of flu season" now. While some states have not seen large number of flu-related physicians' visits, others have seen an increase in such visits. The discrepancy makes it difficult to tell whether the flu season has peaked, according to officials.
Experts say the keys to fighting the flu on campus are strong vaccination programs, hygiene, and awareness, writes Patrick Lindsay for U.S. News & World Report's "University Directory."
In early December, CDC officials warned that the year's flu season could result in more fatalities than other years. CDC Director Tom Frieden noted that the dominant flu strain circulating this year, H3N2, tends to lead to a greater number of hospitalizations and fatalities than other strains. Further, about half of the flu samples tested in the early stages of this year's flu season were a new H3 subtype of the virus that this year's vaccine is not well prepared to fight.
As colleges prepare to handle the threat of a severe flu season, there are several key strategies to consider, writes Lindsay.
Promote use of the right medicines
Most importantly, colleges should promote the flu vaccine on campus. Even in years of reduced effectiveness, the flu vaccine is the most effective way to guard against the spread of the diseases. The CDC also notes, that even in cases when the vaccine fails to prevent someone from getting sick, it can lessen symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness.
According to the officials, one flu strain currently spreading is more dangerous to the elderly and young children, and the flu vaccine does not protect against the strain well. Because of this, CDC Director Tom Frieden advised that it is "more important than usual" for certain patients to use antiviral drugs. CDC on Friday sent an alert to physicians advising them to prompt the use of antiviral medications for flu patients who are hospitalized and at greater risk of complications such as pneumonia.
Hygiene and self-care
Hand sanitizing and cleaning common surfaces is also an important strategy to stop the spread of the flu, writes Lindsay. Students should be advised to wash their hands every time they leave a public space.
Good self-care, like getting enough rest, can guard against the flu by strengthening students' immune systems. For instance, graduate students are found to be more vulnerable to the flu because they often sleep little or have poor diets. Spreading awareness about the role healthy habits can play in preventing the flu may spur students to be more mindful of their behavior.
The simplest way to fight the flu on campus may be to spread awareness. Many people already know intuitively many common flu-prevention techniques. Australia's University of Wollongong found a 70% recall rate for students, and 80% rate for faculty with flu awareness messages simply by using social media. (Grady, New York Times, 1/9; Lindsay, "University Directory," U.S. News & World Report, 1/5 Stobbe, AP/Washington Times, 1/9; Steenhuysen, Reuters, 1/9).
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