Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Campus wheezing way through flu season

This year, it’s been tougher than ever to flee the flu.

In the first week in January, Colorado became the first state to experience “widespread” flu as reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Six weeks later, flu was widespread in every state but one.

Last year, Colorado didn’t experience widespread flu until the eighth week of the year and was joined by only 24 other states.

Mid-peak in this year’s flu season — Feb. 9 — the percentages of patients nationwide reporting flu-like symptoms and testing positive were higher than peak percentages in each of the last three flu seasons. And because this year’s flu shot was “mismatched” to the flu viruses that appeared, the vaccine was less effective than health officials had hoped.

“There are a lot of sick folks,” says Dr. Sam Alexander, director of the University Health and Counseling Center.

Flu bug bites campus

At DU at the end of February, flu totals for the year were 57 percent higher than the same period last season. Among University staffers, sick leave requests were 16 percent higher in January and 13 percent higher in February than in the same months in 2007.

And there’s ample anecdotal evidence that much of the campus has been hacking and wheezing its way through the academic year.

Mitch Hyder, the radio voice of the DU Pioneers, saw his streak of 258 consecutive men’s basketball broadcasts over nine years snapped this season when flu leveled his wife, Reva, and their 4-year-old daughter, Haley.

“It was bad,” says Hyder, who flew home from a road game in Texas to help his family. “Four doctor visits and two trips to the hospital. [At one point] she said to me, ‘Can you sit here and make sure I don’t stop breathing?’”

“Last year was a mild flu season,” says Dr. Ken Gershman, chief of the communicable disease program for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “This year isn’t severe, it’s just a good, average, solid flu season.”

Even a “typical active” season like this one can cause trouble.

“We were hit pretty hard and found ourselves scrambling,” says Tom Willoughby, DU’s vice chancellor for enrollment.

The office that Willoughby supervises relies on alumni, faculty and staff volunteers to conduct thousands of Ammi Hyde Interviews for prospective students across the nation. But this year, Willoughby says, illness forced an unusual number of volunteers to back out.

“We covered everything, but it stretched us,” he says. “For the first time, I saw cases where [staff] just couldn’t go anymore.”

Flu stats

Officially, flu season begins in early October. Statistically, though, it starts when a nationwide network of 150 labs begins seeing an increasing proportion of positive flu tests from patients reporting flu-like symptoms. These are 100-degree or higher fever and a cough and/or sore throat with no other explanation.

Data are fed to the CDC, which monitors the outbreak and helps select the components for the next season’s flu vaccine, which in the United States is decided in February by an FDA advisory committee. Private vaccine manufacturers then begin growing the recommended virus strains so they can deliver next season’s flu vaccine by October or November.

In years when there is a “good match” between the vaccine and the season’s “circulating virus,” the vaccine is 70–90 percent effective in preventing flu in healthy adults, CDC officials report. When a “mismatch” occurs, as it did this year, the vaccine is far less effective, although health officials insist it reduces severity, especially among those at high risk.

“It’s an art — not a science— and an incredible challenge,” Gershman says. “There’s a decent match most years.”

Flu vaccines are made up of one virus from each of three groups: influenza A subtype H1; influenza A subtype H3; and influenza B. This year’s flu vaccine was composed of a Solomon Islands H1 virus, a Wisconsin H3 and a Malaysia B.

The Solomon Islands part of the vaccine was effective. But a variant of the Wisconsin strain, called the Brisbane virus, made its way out of the Southern Hemisphere and into the United States. By the end of January, the Brisbane H3 flu was the season’s predominant problem causer.

“When there’s a predominant H3 virus circulating, there are more hospitalizations and more deaths in the population. On average, it’s a more virulent virus,” Gershman points out. “But that makes no difference to the individual patient. For [him or her], flu is flu.”

Next season’s vaccine will protect against the 2007 Brisbane H1 and H3 viruses and a 2006 Florida B virus.

Protect yourself

The CDC says flu shots and antiviral medications are the best defenses against flu, though an equally important defense is the simplest: Wash your hands frequently, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and steer clear of people who are sick.

“[Hand washing is] a rush of water plus physical scrubbing,” Gershman says. “Soap plays a small role. A three-second hand rinse isn’t gonna do it.”

Flu is transmitted by contact with respiratory droplets expelled within one meter of an infected person, the CDC says. You have to be close, Gershman says, because the droplets fall quickly.

Incubation is two days on average, and adults can be infectious from the day before symptoms begin until five days after symptoms erupt. Young children can spread the virus for more than 10 days after becoming sick.

Uncomplicated flu lasts three to seven days for most people, although cough and fatigue can last for more than two weeks.

“Without the vaccine, we’d be seeing a lot more [patients],” says DU’s Alexander. “It’s still effective against a lot of influenzas A and B,” and for those who get the flu, “the duration is shorter.”

Read about the pandemic flu.

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