Outbreak on campus marks high point of intense flu season

Photo by Sho Kitamura

Long lines for vaccinations were a spectacle to behold on campus as students faced a campus-wide flu epidemic earlier in the year. Flu season typically coincides with the spring semester, making it a big concern for the Tech community.

This year, the U.S. saw higher-than-normal pneumonia and flu activity across the nation. In many cities, the number of hospital visits for influenza-like illnesses (ILI) was above epidemic levels.

The outbreak has begun to decrease in prevalence in recent weeks.

“The most important thing students can do is get the influenza vaccine”

Flu season generally lasts from October through May, peaking sometime during January and March. During the months of January and February, Stamps Health Center reported over sixty cases of the flu.

To combat this, many preventive measures can be taken to reduce the risk of infection.

“Probably the most important thing students can do is get the influenza vaccine,” said Dr. Frank Pickens, a primary care physician specializing in internal medicine at Stamps Health Services.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strongly recommends using some kind of antiviral treatment (either the flu shot or a nasal-spray vaccine) every year to reduce the risk of illness and decrease the chance of serious flu outcomes like pneumonia—an illness with symptoms like a cough and fever that often mimic those of the flu.

Bronchitis, which accompanies viral infections in some cases, can manifest itself in chest discomfort, a wet cough and shortness of breath.

If students missed the free flu vaccinations in January, vaccinations can still be bought at many locations nearby. A quick search on the CDCs Vaccine Locator at flushot.healthmap.org revealed many locations within walking distance such as the Publix Pharmacy on West Peachtree St. which provide flu vaccines.

Prescription drugs like Tamiflu can also help prevent the onset of flu. The antiviral medication can also help speed the recovery from flu.

Another way to reduce the risk of getting ill is to avoid catching influenza in the first place.

The two primary mechanisms which spread influenza are airborne transmission and surface contact. Influenza can be spread through the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. For this reason, avoiding large crowds is another way to avoid catching the flu or other airborne illnesses.

Surface contact transmission of the flu occurs when influenza viruses on a door, table or keyboard are picked up by an unsuspecting person. A person then might touch one of his or her eyes, nose or mouth, leading the virus into the body. Washing hands frequently has been shown to greatly reduce the risk of flu transmission.

Because influenza is not the only illness that students are at risk of receiving, with cold bacteria and pneumonia also commonplace around the same time as the flu, if symptoms worsen suddenly after having the flu, students are advised to visit the health center immediately.

Last fall, Tech saw an epidemic of pneumonia, reaching about 90 cases, up from nine the previous year. The CDC helped determine that the causative organism was mycoplasma pneumonia. Stamps Health Services works with the CDC as a sentinel site, reporting data weekly for flu surveillance purposes.

Perhaps the best strategy to avoid illness in general is to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Exercising, maintaining a proper diet and getting rest are all key to staying healthy.

“It is a challenge because of time constraints for Tech students. As far as exercising goes I think it’s a really good investment of time,” said Dr. Pickens, “If you spend thirty minutes a day exercising, you become more efficient, can focus better and can concentrate more.”

“I think healthy dietary choices are important too”

Taking the time to maintain a healthy lifestyle is frequently overlooked as a simple solution to building a stronger immune system and body in general. Although exercise might often conflict with study time, regular exercise has been shown to improve academic performance.

“I think healthy dietary choices are important too. I think if you make the effort it can be done,” Dr. Pickens added.

The CDC announced that the flu season had arrived early when hospitals became significantly busier with an influx of sick patients in December.

Although the worst of the flu season is likely over, habits like proper hygiene and a healthy lifestyle are encouraged year round.