Print Email Facebook Twitter Release Share Font Size: A A A A
Virus pulls its punch
Cover your mouth - influenza is here
Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013
By Linda Weiford, WSU News
WSU's Health and Wellness Services is seeing influenza cases climb among students.
(Photo by Linda Weiford, WSU News)
(Photo by Linda Weiford, WSU News)
PULLMAN, Wash. - Eastern Washington, Idaho and other western states are seeing a rise in flu activity, even as cases drop slightly elsewhere in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.
Washington State University is no exception, where the influenza virus has been gaining traction since students returned to campus from winter break, said Dennis Garcia, senior associate medical director of the campus’s Health and Wellness Services (HWS). Almost daily, students are seen for fevers, aches, a dry cough and chest pain, he said.
Cases going up
In a matter of three weeks, two cases confirmed at HWS shot up to 20. Influenza Type A (H3N2) appears to be the main culprit, said Garcia - the same aggressive strain that began storming across the nation four weeks earlier than the normal flu season.
Just after Christmas, influenza cases climbed to a widespread level in western Washington but were seen only sporadically in the eastern portion of the state, according to data released by the CDC. However, the virus has advanced in the region, as demonstrated at WSU and in updates by the Washington State Department of Health (see http://www.doh.wa.gov/portals/1/Documents/5100/fluupdate.pdf).
"My guess is that some students who traveled to the west side during semester break brought the virus back with them,” said Garcia. "Confirmed cases have been going up ever since.”
Students more susceptible
Across the country, not only did influenza strike earlier, but it’s a "worse than average season,” said CDC director Tom Frieden in a recent press conference call. Though the flu season is only half over, the virus has killed more children and elderly than during the entire season last year, he said.
How, then, does it pose a threat to college students?
Because flu spreads more readily among large groups of people in close contact, college campuses can be hot zones for influenza outbreaks, according to the Journal of American College Health Association. That’s why WSU distributes hand sanitizer, posts banners advising vigilant hand-washing and urges its students to get vaccinated, said Garcia.
"I’m dealing with 18- to 24-year-olds. They may be more resilient but they’re also more susceptible,” he said. "The majority of them haven’t been immunized against influenza. In their minds, they’re young, they’re invincible.”
What’s more, many students are sleep deprived; they skip meals and scramble to classes and group living facilities.
"They get run down and they’re exposed to many other students and, potentially, germs,” Garcia said. "This makes them ideal candidates for influenza infection.”
Another bad bug
The region is also in the grip of a virus that triggers flu-like symptoms, but instead it’s a bad cold. Though the illness produces congestion, aches and a cough, there are marked differences between it and influenza, said Garcia, who offers these examples:
Did symptoms come on rapidly and in full force? Then it’s probably the flu. Lots of nasal congestion? A super stuffy nose is more likely caused by a cold. How about the cough? If lots of mucous is coming up, again, it’s probably a cold and not the flu, he said: "With influenza, students often tell me their chests hurt, and their coughs tend to be dry and raspy.”
Bottom line: "If you have more cold-like symptoms, it’s not influenza. Stay at home and ride it out,” advised Garcia.
Despite H3N2’s surge, flu shots can extinguish its spark. The vaccine provides "moderate effectiveness," according to the CDC, which means a 62 percent protection rate.
Though not perfect, a flu shot is the single most important step people can take, said Garcia. After all, "not getting one means that you have zero protection.”
As for who pays, at WSU, student health insurance covers the cost of a flu shot, said HWS billing supervisor Merry Lawrence.
Too late for a shot because you’re already feeling sick? Students who test positive for influenza can take prescription antiviral drugs to reduce their suffering – provided the medication is taken within 48 hours of developing symptoms. But remember, anti-virals are considered a second line of defense, said Garcia.
"Yes, they shorten the duration of the illness, but you still feel miserable and you can still spread it to other people. I like to tell students, if you don’t get a flu shot for yourself, then get one for someone you care about.”
For a closer look at the flu season, including symptoms, treatment and the vaccine, go to http://www.flu.gov/about_the_flu/current_flu/index.html#