Walking in to your 150-person psychology lecture on Friday afternoon, you choose your normal seat in the second row. Five minutes later, a fellow classmate walks in sneezing and coughing. She takes the seat next to you, wiping her nose with a few squares from a roll of toilet paper she carries. You move down four seats, leaving a wide gap between the two of you. It’s not paranoia, it’s the beginning of swine flu season at the College of William and Mary.
Already appearing on many college campuses nationwide, the H1N1 virus, commonly known as the swine flu, is making the pre-flu season a public health spectacle. In an attempt to keep the student body healthy, the College has created a new webpage dedicated to flu prevention, established a vaccine plan and distributed hand sanitizer to many buildings on campus. Despite the administration’s informative warnings, the sense of alarm was not shared by all of the student body.
“It’s like when that tropical storm came through,” Jessica Taylor M.A. ’10 said. “The e-mails were more for just students being afraid than anything else.”
Jennifer Margherito ’11, who worked in a hospital with a swine flu case over the summer, was more concerned over catching the flu on her flight to her study abroad program in Italy than catching the flu here at home, but she recognizes the need for the College’s actions.
“I can understand why the administration is doing it. It’s close quarters here. People get sick from common colds in the dorms,” she said.
In a recent survey of 189 universities by the American College Health Association, 2,000 swine flu cases were identified. Some schools have even resorted to designating specific spaces for infected students. At Emory University, a dorm was set aside as a temporary quarantine, coined “club swine.” The swine flu is raising the alarm this year because it is a new strain of the influenza virus, so very few people, especially young people, have immunity to it.
“I’m not too concerned about it,” Ginny McLane ’11 said. “I understand that it’s killing more healthy people than it should be, which is why people are concerned, but it’s still a very small fraction of the overall population.”
Elizabeth Russ ’13, who attended a summer program at the College soon after the three on-campus cases of swine flu occurred, is also unconcerned.
“I feel like the media has misreported the nature of the disease and caused unnecessary hysteria,” she said. “Some of my friends are nervous about an outbreak, but I think that stems from confusion and hype by the media. William and Mary has been taking careful precautions to avoid an outbreak, and students should be mindful, but not scared of the disease.”
In addition to health providers, pregnant women and young children, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention cites young adults ages 18 to 24 as one of the groups most vulnerable to the swine flu. In an e-mail to students last week, the College’s Vice President for Administration Anne Martin recommended that students get both the seasonal flu vaccine and the H1N1 shots.
“I’m still considering getting it,” said McLane. “I’m in the ‘at-risk’ age group, but I don’t have any of the preexisting conditions — asthma, allergies, that kind of thing — that are predisposing people to fatality.”
The CDC is currently studying the negative effects of the new vaccine, most notably any signs of the Guillain-Barre disease, a neurological disease that killed 25 Americans who were vaccinated during the 1976 swine flu outbreak. Many students are still weighing the risks associated with the swine flu as well as the vaccine for it. However, according to Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci, there is no question that the flu is more dangerous than the vaccine.
“Today, the pandemic is a reality,” Fauci said in an interview with the Washington Post. “The benefit of the vaccine far outweighs the risks. The way you make this vaccine is essentially the same for seasonal flu vaccines we’ve made for decades.”
The College will provide free flu shots to the student body when the vaccines become available in mid-October. The swine flu vaccine requires two shots, to be given three weeks apart from each other.
“I have gotten seasonal flu shots in the past,” Russ said. “While I think it’s good to take precautions, I’m reluctant to get the swine flu shots. I’m wary of shots that have just been developed.”
There are certain myths associated with the swine flu. You cannot get it from eating pork, and the seasonal flu shot does not protect you against the swine flu. Also, you are most contagious both during your illness and at least one week before you get symptoms. By taking certain precautions, all students can prevent the spread of the flu, whether they get sick or not.
“I’m taking the same precautions against swine flu as I do against getting sick every year: I wash my hands frequently, cover coughs and sneezes and don’t share things like drinks with other people,” Russ said. “If everyone could do the same, it would be the best precaution we could take.”
The College has launched an informational website about the H1N1 virus at www.wm.edu/flu. The best advice for preventing illness includes frequently washing your hands or using hand sanitizer and to avoid touching your hands to your mouth and nose. The College is also strongly encouraging students with flu-like symptoms to stay in their rooms and contact a doctor.
College Provost Michael Halleran said in a message Wednesday to faculty that they should “do nothing to make students or staff feel that they will be penalized for necessary absences.” Along with having flexibility in student assignments, faculty are also encouraged to stay home if they are ill. According to McLane, simple precautions can go a long way in preventing the swine flu.
“I might drink a little more orange juice now and then. And the usual hygiene, of course, but I’m really not planning on being paranoid about the whole thing,” she said.
Seasonal flu shots are currently available at the Student Health Center for $20 during its normal hours of operation. The two H1N1 flu shots will be available on campus mid-October.