“It’s the bubonic plague!” Remarked one teacher as she took class attendance. In fact, it’s not the plague, but the flu. This year the virus is hitting UVM students harder than it has in years.
Flu diagnoses at the Center for Health and Wellbeing started to climb the third week in Feb. reported Peter Nobes, Primary Care Clinician. During the last week of February, 4 percent of health center visits resulted in flu diagnoses.
As of March 6, the number had jumped to 25 percent.
Tom Wilson, M.D at Washington University School of Medicine attempts to explain what is behind this spike in flu cases on his Madsci.com “Virology” Web site. While the flu virus is present twelve months of the year, he says outbreaks are most common during the winter months. Cold weather keeps people indoors, and in close contact with each other.
The flu virus can be transmitted in airborne particles through coughing and sneezing. One can also become infected from hand to mouth or nose contact after touching an object previously handled by an infectious person.
On college campuses, students live in close quarters with each other and constantly share door handles and desks. This makes student bodies especially prone to flu out breaks. “The UVM influenza experience is similar to other New England reporting sites,” Nobes said.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports an average of 1.2 percent of all patient visits are due to flu like illnesses throughout the year. Once a region’s number of diagnosed flu cases exceeds this baseline of 1.2 percent, it qualifies as an outbreak.
Despite the high number of vaccinations administered to students, the flu surfaced this year right on schedule.
“We expect flu any time from November on, but typically starting January when students return for second semester and bring flu with them from other parts of the country,” Nobes said. This year’s first flu case was reported Feb. 8.
The flu’s typical symptoms are a sudden onset of high fever, muscle aches, headache, dry cough, and weakness, among others.
Due to the expense and sheer number of patient visits, the Center for Health and Well being cannot test each patient for influenza. “When several positive [influenza] results are obtained, we stop testing students and begin diagnosing the flu based on their clinical symptoms,” Nobes said.
Because flu symptoms are common to other types of infection, the CDC provides healthcare facilities with guidelines for diagnosing Influenza like Illness (ILI). While some cases may not be caused by the influenza virus, the CDC lumps the similar illnesses together, and requires all cases of ILI to be reported at the end of each week.
Nobes suspects that the Center for Health and Well being’s statistic of 25% of patient visit being attributed to ILI may in fact be low.
“We are also seeing a very high volume of students with respiratory infections that we code differently, however we can assume their underlying problem is influenza. Therefore the actual percent of students we’ve seen up until yesterday who have the flu is probably well over 25%,” Nobes wrote in a memo to the Center staff.
Vaccination helps to temper flu outbreaks. All individuals are encouraged to get a flu shot, which are available at flu shot clinics held in Billings in October and November.
The Center for Health and Wellbeing is trying to schedule critical visits only during this flu outbreak. “We’re putting aside routine stuff that they can wait. We’re making every attempt to see acutely ill students,” Nobes said.
They urge students with high fevers to stay in bed so as not to spread the virus and for optimal recovery. However, the clinic wants infected students to schedule appointments so their illness can be confirmed as an influenza like illness, and not a more serious illness such as pneumonia.