By Michael McCurry
This year’s flu season continues to rage on and, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), all but two states have been deemed to have widespread outbreaks. Included in those forty-eight states is New Jersey, which according to the New Jersey Department of Health has now reached 10,000 confirmed cases of the flu this season. On a nationwide level, the percentage of hospital visits for flu-like symptoms has risen from the yearly average of 2.2 percent to 7.1 percent over the past seven weeks, which is the highest mark since 2009’s swine flu epidemic that peaked at 8. It is not atypical for the flu to be active this time of year. What is unusual is the relative speed of this year’s season as the CDC estimates it could extend to May.
“It seems like it is spiking a little bit now in a way that goes beyond what we have seen historically,” said Professor of Biology Dr. George Van Orden. “This time of year, we do see a lot of flu activity, it is not uncommon to see, but again this is going to be one of those years where we are going to see more activity then what is normal.”
There are four species of influenza viruses — A, B, C and D — with species A and B causing the seasonal outbreaks in the winter. Further, each of these species has different subspecies which are also known as strains. This year’s flu season is more severe than usual because it includes the resilient H3N2, a strain of influenza type A that causes more severe health risks and is very tricky to prevent.
H3N2 hits people harder than other seasonal flu strains and can be especially deadly among vulnerable groups like the elderly and children. Researchers still aren’t sure why, but they have found that a flu season involving the H3N2 virus is typically nastier — with more hospitalizations and flu-related deaths — than seasons involving fellow species A strain H1N1 or Type B viruses. This year, nearly 90 percent of flu cases involve the H3N2 strain.
“There are many different types of influenza, and people tend to think that if they are vaccinated, then they are protected,” said Dr. Van Orden. “Well, it could be another subgroup that you were exposed to that the vaccine was not developed for.”
While vaccinations are very helpful in retarding the spread of the flu, they are not as absolute as most assume.
“Every year the World Health Organization conducts a study to determine the three or four strains they believe will be the most volatile for the coming year. Then, pharmaceutical companies will develop a vaccine to target those three or four strains, and sometimes they make a mistake, and sometimes something new comes along, as we saw with H1N1 in 2009,” according to Dr. Van Orden.
The first data on the performance of this year’s flu vaccine has just been published — and it suggests the vaccine may be faring even worse than in previous years. The study, from the journal Eurosurveillance, found that the flu vaccine was only 10 percent effective against H3N2 among adults in Canada.
On Monday, Drew Health Services sent out a campus-wide email that provided tips to help prevent catching the flu. Suggestions such as coughing and sneezing into a tissue or the crook of your arm, washing your hands frequently with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth, cleaning and sanitizing commonly affected surfaces and steering clear of those who have the flu. This information was also shared on Drew’s social media feeds as well as the Health Service Facebook page. Flyers were posted around the residence halls to remind students about the importance of hand washing and coughing etiquette to prevent the spread of germs. Also, free masks are available in the Health Service waiting room for students to use if they have flu-like symptoms to avoid infecting others.
“Anyone with flu symptoms should self-isolate–avoid others as much as possible, so you do not spread the flu–until you are fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications,” said Drew’s Director of Health Services Joan Galbraith. “Self-isolating means staying out of class, work, the dining hall and other places where you could potentially infect others. Rest and drink lots of fluids. You can also use over-the-counter pain relievers and fever reducers if you need to.”
According to Director Galbraith, Health Services have provided approximately 200 students, faculty and staff with vaccinations. There have only been 12 diagnosed cases of flu on campus. Drew students who would like to get vaccinated can call Health Services and schedule an appointment at any time.