August 20th, 2009
11:56 AM ET

Back to School Flus

By Jennifer Adaeze Anyaegbunam
CNN Medical News Intern

This year my back-to-school to do list looks a bit different than it has in previous years. Select senior year courses, check. Purchase school supplies, check. Don’t get swine flu. Um—I’ll try?

Colleges represent a diverse and mobile population. Individuals don’t sleep enough, eat right, practice the best hygiene, or make the healthiest choices. Say you’re at a party, and there is only one used cup left, do you drink from it? In college, too frequently the answer is yes! And if you don’t drink from the dirty red cup, your best friend might. Let’s face it, on campus there are only a few degrees of separation so I’m wondering how I will separate myself from the latest H1N1 viral outbreak.

Swine flu is spread via the same mechanism as regular seasonal influenza. When people with these viruses cough or sneeze the virus is released into the air via tiny in respiratory droplets. You can contract swine flu by coming in contact with these droplets or touching a surface contaminated with these droplets containing the H1N1 virus up to 8 hours after it was deposited.

There were a few cases of swine flu on my campus at the end of last semester. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), avoiding contact with the sick and frequent hand sanitizing can help reduce the risk of spreading the flu. I interviewed some of the members of Harvard’s class of 2009 to find out exactly how swine flu had affected their commencement ceremony, and apparently the seniors I spoke with saw these CDC tips in action. According to graduate Devin Smith, the Dean of the college, “… announced that swine-flu had, in fact, worked its way into Harvard graduation and instructed graduates, family, and friends to refrain from hugging and shaking hands.” Matthew Clair, another recent graduate, noted that everyone at graduation seemed to be coughing and sneezing but, “besides the hand sanitizer they squirted into our hands before we received our diplomas and the general paranoia, graduation proceeded as usual.”

So when I return to campus, will my life proceed as usual too?

Clinical trials for a swine flu vaccine are in progress, and public health officials are hopeful that the swine flu vaccine will be ready for public distribution by mid-October. Due to the number of swine flu cases in my demographic, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has suggested that college-aged students are among the first to get the H1N1 vaccine this fall. The CDC will be updating their recommendations for swine flu prevention and preparedness for institutions of higher learning later today, but so far the organization does not recommend that colleges dismiss lectures or other large gatherings—so unfortunately, summer vacation will not last until mid-October when the vaccine becomes available.

If you do happen to get sick, public health officials recommend that you self-isolate and stay home until at least 24 hours after your fever breaks. Many college students live in dorms so isolation may be difficult. But before you burn all of Sally’s belongings or douse John with holy water you should consult these CDC tips for those living with someone with swine flu.

Exposing yourself to swine flu may seem like the easiest way to build a natural immunity to the H1N1 virus and/or get excused from your midterms. I know the thought has crossed your mind, but don't do it. Swine flu has been mild for many people, but deadly for others– so you should probably devise an alternate, less fatal scheme (or maybe just study).

Until the vaccine becomes available, I hope that for my sake and others’, those living in communal environments practice healthier habits and take active steps to prevent the spread of swine flu. So, always cough or sneeze into your sleeve or a tissue, and if you must drink from the red cup, wash your hands after!

College students, will you be getting vaccinated? Do you think this vaccine should be required for all those living in communal environments?

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