UI officials expect flu increase as students return


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Caught in the coughs and sneezes of students, the influenza virus looms in the minds of local officials as the University of Iowa comes back to life after winter break.

This year’s flu not only came early, it also hit hard. Officials expect an increase in the number of cases of the flu in the coming weeks.

“We are expecting the incidence of infection to go up as students and faculty return to campus,” said Loreen Herwaldt, a UI professor of infectious diseases.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention classifies the outbreak in Iowa as moderate. However, the numbers are hard to pin down.

“Influenza is not a reportable disease,”  Johnson County Public Health head Doug Beardsley said.
In the CDC’s most recent weekly report, the number of deaths attributed to influenza and pneumonia is considered at “epidemic” levels for the second week in a row. From 2012-2013, 29 flu-related pediatric deaths were reported — nine of those occurred in the week of Jan. 6-12.

Although Iowa may be seen as moderate, the numbers are increasing locally.

“Our emergency treatment center is seeing an increase in people with flu-like symptoms,” Herwaldt said.

In response, the push to vaccinate students continues, but UI officials are also taking steps to handle students who do get sick and to curb the spread of the virus.

“I know the university has been very proactive,” Beardsley said.

Measures are in place to keep students relatively comfortable in their rooms, helping them get better and preventing the spread of the virus.

“The residence halls have packets of supplies that can help relieve symptoms of the flu and can provide food so that ill students do not have to leave their rooms,” Herwaldt said.

Staying home not only helps those who are sick but also those who are healthy.

“Those who have influenza have a responsibility to stay home, not just because they feel rotten but because if they’re out and about they could be passing on influenza,” said the CDC’s Curtis Allen.

The UI’s efforts extend to the classroom as well.

“The university has also encouraged faculty to not discipline students if they stay home because they have influenza,” Herwaldt said.

Lisa James, the associate director of UI Student Health, emphasized the importance of taking the pressure to go to class off students.

“Some programs have very strict attendance policies,” she said. “[This measure] gives them permission to curl up and get better.”

Officials insist that the vaccine is paramount in keeping students, and those around them, healthy.
“When you’re vaccinated against influenza, you’re not only protecting yourself but those around you,” Allen said.

Beardsley agreed, pushing for people to think of those around them, especially the vulnerable ones. He said that a person will most likely survive the flu — however, they may give it to someone who cannot.

The vaccine itself is about 62 percent effective, which is less than the CDC hoped for.

However, Beardsley reminds that the flu should not be trifled with.

“Influenza should be taken seriously,” he said. “There’s still plenty of potential out there for it to get worse.”

And for those worried they waited too long into the season, Beardsley said that it is never too late.

James said, though, that it takes two weeks to receive the full protection the vaccine can provide. In other words: the sooner the better.

The UI, UI Hospitals and Clinics, and the county are all encouraging vaccination. Vaccines are available through both the UIHC and Student Health, even as some local pharmacies run out.

And students aren’t immune just because of youth.

“Even very young healthy people can become very ill,” Herwaldt said.

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