Officials say students at highest risk for swine flu


Flu season got off to an early start this year.

"And nearly all of it is [swine] flu," said Dr. Beth Bell, associate director for science at the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC's Web site reports 1,829 cases in 2009 for positive diagnosis of the swine flu in Region 2, designated as New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"We are seeing that emergency room and [doctor's] office visits are higher than are what expected at this time of year by a lot," Bell said. "College students really have been disproportionately affected."

The CDC has heard about lots of outbreaks on college campuses, Bell said.

"We think this is, at least partially, because older people might have some immunity which protects them from this new H1N1 virus that younger people have," Bell said. "And then on top of that, the condition on college campuses really promotes transmission of the flu and other respiratory viruses and those factors put together are certainly playing a role."

The University has had only one confirmed case of the H1N1 virus since Sept. 1, according to an e-mail correspondence between Melodee Lasky, executive director of Rutgers-New Brunswick Health Services, and Mark McLane, director of University Environmental, Health and Safety.

But many students have presented with influenza-like symptoms. For such students, Health Services can only offer treatment for symptoms.

"Diagnosis and treatment of influenza-like illness is largely based upon symptoms," according to the correspondence.

Official diagnoses of H1N1 at the University ended earlier this month when the state stopped offering the test.

"[The state is] more interested in serious testing [in the cases of hospitalizations and deaths]," Lasky said in a phone interview.

There are no regulations to which the University must abide as far as closing after a certain number of supposed or confirmed cases, according to the correspondence.

While hospitals and doctor's offices are racking in statistics for H1N1, the seasonal flu still maintains a substantial lead with 200,000 hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths on average per year, said Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services.

"When you're dealing with a flu that no one has seen before it's pretty difficult to predict … We know that seasonal flu is pretty dangerous for a certain population," she said. "H1N1, as it begins to mix with the seasonal flu strain, could get much more virulent. The good news is so far it hasn't."

H1N1 has presented in 120 countries without mutating, Sebelius said.

"But we don't know that it won't do that next week," she said.

In order to gain an upper hand on the virus, which last presented in 1976 but has changed drastically since then, President Barack Obama requested Congress launch vaccine research.

"The vaccine campaign was started knowing no one had any built-in immunity that we could determine," Sebelius said. "We know from our 21st century public health experience that vaccination is by far the best defense."

Not only are there pandemic-sized health concerns associated with H1N1, but huge economic ramifications as well.

"Work-forces aren't able to have continuity of business if thousands of their employees get sick," she said. "There are huge ramifications just with fairly mild versions of a brand-new flu that could rampantly travel through the United States."

The H1N1 vaccine is scheduled to be available for high demand by mid-October, Sebelius said.

"We have submitted paperwork to the [New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services] to obtain the H1N1 influenza vaccine and are making plans to be able to administer it on campus," according to the correspondence. "When and how much vaccine we will receive is unknown at this time."

The high-risk factors for H1N1 lie in a comparison of the seasonal flu and H1N1.

"Most of the morbidity and moralities of seasonal flu are in people age 65 and older," Bell said. "And what were are seeing with this flu is it is disproportionately affecting younger people … If we were to compare estimates, the ages of the people who are affected are quite different with seasonal flu and 2009 H1N1. A lot more younger people are being diagnosed with H1N1."

Regardless of the opportunity to receive a diagnosis from the University this season, Bell recommends students stay alert of the potential dangerous situation, especially those in "high-risk groups."

"Those [groups] would be [composed of] people who have lung diseases, including asthma, diabetes, heart disease and pregnant women," she said. "If they are in one of these high-risk groups and they get sick they should contact their doctor right away to see if their doctor recommends anti-viral treatment."


Sara Gretina

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