Officials: Students should still get H1N1 vaccine

BY DEBJANI MUKHERJEE
Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 31, 2010

While fears about swine flu are dying down, University health officials are still concerned about the virus and are encouraging students to get vaccinated.

Despite the increased number of vaccinations available at the University Health Service, the number of students and faculty being vaccinated at the University has decreased since H1N1 virus vaccinations became available in November, according to UHS officials.

According to a recent study by the American College Health Association, during the month of January, only 4.2 percent of the vaccinations available to Michigan residents have been used as of Jan. 22.

From Sept. 1, 2009 to Jan. 18, 2010, UHS saw 810 cases of influenza-like illnesses, according to Robert Winfield, chief health officer of the University and director of UHS. But Winfield said there were more cases than documented because not all ill students visited the health service for treatment.

“We were only seeing the tip of the iceberg at the health service,” Winfield said.

Winfield said the number of H1N1 cases seen at UHS has reduced significantly since its peak in the second week of September, when up to 52 cases were seen each day. Five months later, during the first two weeks of January, there were about one to two cases per day.

However, there was an increase last week, when UHS saw around seven cases each day.

Winfield said the CDC recommends that people do not see a doctor unless they’re actually sick and said that UHS encouraged students to follow that policy so that the health service could accommodate those who were sick.

“We were trying very hard not to overwhelm ourselves,” Winfield said.

Despite the decrease in the number of cases since September, Winfield advised students to continue to get vaccinated, adding that they shouldn’t grow complacent. He said UHS anticipates a third wave of the H1N1 virus in February or March of this year.

According to Winfield, approximately 8,000 H1N1 vaccines have been administered on campus since November. Students receive the vaccine for free, while faculty and staff have to pay an administration fee set by the government.

UHS will continue to give out vaccines for students and University employees who still want to get vaccinated.

While much of the hype around the virus has appeared to die down on campus, Winfield said he doesn’t think the University overreacted in preparing for it. Unless students were sick, Winfield said they weren’t directly affected by policies related to the virus.

He added that the University could have suspended classes, but it didn’t, and flu prevention efforts went as planned.

“We had prepared for something more severe, but we certainly don’t think (we) inconvenienced campus,” Winfield said. “I’m pretty pleased with the way things worked out.”

Like Winfield, national public health officials remain cautious, as they do not want to repeat mistakes made during the 1957 flu pandemic, which killed 70,000 people in the United States.

Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, said in a press conference last week that the spread of the flu dropped in December and January during the 1957 outbreak.

She said health officials at the time thought the worst of the pandemic was over and stopped encouraging people to get vaccinated. As a result, there was an unexpected increase in the number of hospitalizations and deaths due to the flu in March 1958.

“Flu is unpredictable,” Sebelius said in the press conference.

Dr. Stephen Redd, director of the Influenza Coordination Unit at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in the press conference that health officials know that flu pandemics come in waves, and cited spring and winter waves that occurred in the 1918 and 1957 flu outbreaks.

But this time, officials say they are prepared.

Sebelius said in the press conference that there is a lot of the H1N1 vaccine still available, and it is imperative for people to continue to protect themselves and get vaccinated against the H1N1 virus if they haven’t already.

According to the CDC, as of Jan. 28, more than 118 million doses of the vaccine have been shipped to hospitals, clinics and health departments in the country. But as of Dec. 12, only 46 million people in the U.S. have been vaccinated against the virus.

Even if people get a mild case of the virus, Sebelius said they can pass it on to more susceptible people like pregnant women and children with asthma.

The H1N1 virus was first detected last April. It continued to be transmitted through the summer, during the time of year when flu is not normally spread. Redd said in the press conference that there was an increase in the virus in late August, around the time when college students went back to school.

Redd added that the virus is still circulating around the country. Among children and college students, an estimated one fourth of the population has been infected with the virus, he said. This figure is much higher than what is usually seen in the normal period of seasonal flu.