Swine flu hits colleges hard

Sick students swamp clinics

Staff WriterSeptember 16, 2009 

  • An NCSU professor has an idea why viruses spread so quickly on college campuses: Students know how to practice good hygiene but simply don't.

    Ben Chapman, an assistant professor of family and consumer services, recently published a study on a norovirus outbreak at the University of Guelth in Canada. He found that 83 percent of students who ate in a campus dining hall said they followed posted hygiene recommendations, but only 17 percent actually did so.

    And part of the reason is the communication campaigns conducted by health agencies, which commonly use phrases like "self-isolate" and "gastrointestinal illness."

    If you're talking to a college student, Chapman argues, just tell them they'll puke if they don't wash their hands.

    "A lot of the stuff that is out there is motherly and generic," he said. "We have to target students differently than we need to target parents of little kids."

Take it from Caroline Murray: The swine flu is no fun.

The Peace College freshman had barely figured out where her classes meet when the pandemic H1N1 virus floored her. Body aches. Sore throat. A fever that hit 103.5. She missed a week of class.

"It was my plan to do school work, but I really couldn't," said Murray, who is from Raleigh. "It was really awful."

Murray is one of hundreds of Triangle college students to fall victim this semester. A type of influenza easily passed among young people, H1N1 is circulating so commonly that health officials don't even test for it specifically. They simply say students have "influenza-like illness" and assume the strain is H1N1.

The largest numbers are at UNC-Chapel Hill, which through last week had nearly 700 cases. That's more than twice the 309 cases reported by N.C. State over essentially the same period, and NCSU is a larger institution.

Most other universities report far lower numbers. Wake Forest has seen about 200 cases, and Duke has had about 170. At Peace, the small women's college in Raleigh, Murray is one of 13 students to get it.

The totals are likely higher. These numbers represent only students who seek help from a campus health office.

Universities say the cases they're seeing are mild; across the nation, there have been just three reported H1N1-related deaths on college campuses, the most recent at Cornell University last week.

So far, illnesses haven't created mass class absences, officials say.

But at UNC-CH, campus health workers are watching the numbers carefully. Last week, the H1N1 cases at the student health service represented 29 percent of all maladies reported there, said Campus Health Services Director Mary Covington.

"Anytime you get over 15 percent, it's high," Covington said.

So health officials urge students to wash their hands a lot and stay isolated if they feel symptoms.

"This is a rather mild illness," Covington said. "You don't really have to seek medical attention."

Still, plenty of students do so. At NCSU, health officials are treading water.

"All of our appointments are full at the beginning of the day so we're doing the best we can to fit people in," said Jerry Barker, director of NCSU's student health services. "We're maxed out, which is scary given we might see larger numbers."

At Peace College, the 13 students diagnosed with H1N1 symptoms so far this fall are less than 2 percent of the student population of 732. Dean of Students Candice Johnston attributes the low numbers to an aggressive hygiene campaign.

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