Widespread flu hits R.I., but misses Brown

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

This year, Rhode Island is one of 49 states reporting widespread flu activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But the widespread activity hasn’t yet struck College Hill – Director of Health Services Edward Wheeler said that a normal amount of students have been coming in for treatment and testing positive for the flu.

“I don’t know if we’re lucky or if it’s going to hit us later,” Wheeler said. He added that this year, like every year, Health Services has seen several students whose symptoms fall somewhere in the range between “little more than a common cold” and a full-blown flu. Wheeler said that tests often reveal these symptoms are caused by other winter viruses instead of the flu.

Andrea Bagnall Degos, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Health, said over the past few months, the incidence of flu-like illness has been high in at least three of Rhode Island’s five counties. She said this places the state in the CDC’s most elevated category of activity.

“It is considered a pretty bad flu year, and we’re also at the peak of flu season,” said Bagnall Degos, adding that the past few years have been mild in comparison.

Rhode Island State Epidemiologist Utpala Bandy said the usual reason for a high level of flu activity is the emergence of a strain to which greater numbers of people are susceptible.

“That’s … because maybe those (flu virus variants) have not come by in a long time or simply because people haven’t been vaccinated,” Bandy said.

Vaccination is an item of concern, with the CDC having announced that this year’s vaccine fails to cover several strains of flu virus that are currently circulating.

Bandy said that college students, given their busy schedules, have “notoriously low rates” when it comes to vaccination campaigns in general. But Brown students seem to be an exception to that rule. Around 1,500 attend free flu shot clinics that the University offers in late fall, Wheeler said.

Students who do contract the flu should wash their hands frequently, stay rested and hydrated and avoid close contact with other people, Wheeler said. He added that if certain symptoms, such as respiratory distress and significant coughing, arise, students should call Health Services.

Wheeler also addressed one common vaccination misconception: “The flu shot will give you the flu – that’s a myth.”

He said that people should not be discouraged from getting vaccinated, adding that the flu shot is beneficial on two counts: It helps prevent the flu in individuals, and it also decreases the amount of flu circulating in the community.

“The main thing here is prevention,” he said, noting that a college campus is the ideal environment for the spread of viruses.

While Brown no longer offers flu vaccinations at this point in the season, Bagnall Degos said students can still get immunized at many doctors’ offices in the state. Though flu season has already reached its peak, she said, circulation can continue into the spring, as late as May.

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