The Stigma of Swine Flu on Campus

The World Health Organization has dubbed the novel H1N1 (swine) influenza a “public health emergency of international concern.” A global pandemic in the coming winter months seems likely according to various international organizations. Although both the seasonal flu and H1N1 have nearly identical national death rates of around .1%, the fears that have maintained swine flu’s celebrity are rooted in the concern that nearly three times as many Americans may be infected with the flu this year as compared to last.

Swine influenza was first discovered in pig populations in 1918. Since then, on a global level, several different strains of swine flu have been endured: in 1918 (50 to 100 million killed worldwide), in the 1976 U.S. outbreak (during which more people died of the side effects of the vaccination than the flu itself), in 1988 (1 case, no communal outbreak), 1998 (rampant exclusively among pigs) and in the Philippines in 2007.

With regard to the 2009 outbreak, “the predominance of cases has been in the northeast part of the United States,” according to Adjunct Professor of the Health Sciences and Director of Student Health Services Dr. Merrill Miller. This fact is of particular interest to large northeastern institutions, such as Colgate, where people tend to live in close proximity to one another. Couple this with the fact that people between 0 to 24 are the most likely to be affected and college campuses become the perfect breeding ground for contagious disease.

“Our first case was August 31 and then over the past 5 weeks we have been seeing a pretty steadily increasing stream from one or two cases a day during the first three weeks to last week where we are diagnosing ‘flu-like illness’ five to six times a day,” Miller said. “This week we are diagnosing between 10 to15 cases a day.”

“Flu-like illness” is the nationally accepted jargon that nearly positively categorizes novel H1N1 infection. Because over 95 percent of flu diagnoses in 2009 have been swine flu, to have “flu-like illness” is to have H1N1.

“Colgate has had dozens of cases,” Miller said, “and we are anticipating it [continual transmission] for more weeks; but mid-semester break may be a little bit of a blockage.”

Fortunately, there is a well-founded belief that this strain of swine influenza tends to operate in cycles of three to four months preventing the possibility of continual escalation.

Preventing transmission of H1N1 is not as easy as washing hands and covering mouths.

“People who develop the flu are probably infectious a day before they show specific symptoms,” Miller said.

It could be for this very reason that the first person diagnosed with H1N1 at Colgate, first-year Caitlin Cunningham, said she had no idea how she got it.

“I was washing my hands and using hand-sanitizer,” Cunningham said.

When media outlets report of swine flu as an “airborne illness,” it is not airborne in the sense that infected particles are lurking in the air for extended periods of time.

“[Infected particles] can extend three feet from the mouth and are airborne in that sense. However, the particles are quite heavy and immediately fall on objects where they can live from two to six hours,” Miller said.

The danger comes when these particles are deposited near, or in, facial orifices.

Once infected, students may enter medical isolation in the more than 80 beds that Student Health Services, in conjunction with other administrative campus offices, have put aside. They may also adjust the living situation in one’s dorm or going home for a week or so.

“I was the first person in the isolation room,” Cunningham said. “It was a cement box with a little window, a bed and a desk. The plus was my own bathroom and food delivered from Frank. The food would be put down outside my door, and I would have to wait a minute for the deliverer to get away before I could open the door and get it.”

At times, the isolation was especially hard.

“Someone who had been in the isolation room before me had [drawn] a picture of a TV on lined paper and put it up on the wall; it was the most depressing thing,” Cunningham said.

Students who developed early cases of H1N1 faced dreary conditions inside the isolation room and stigma once released.

“Rumors spread fast. A lot of people will know you had the flu and assume it’s swine,” Cunningham said.

Fortunately for the more than 600 expected campus cases of swine flu both Cunningham and Miller agree that the sheer mass of cases will make infection nearly impossible to stigmatize.

According to Miller, Colgate has ordered “1500 doses of the regular seasonal flu vaccine [still available for 15 dollars] and will receive 2500 doses of the H1N1 flu vaccine in late October [administered for free] from the federal government.”

Miller maintains that vaccination worries are unfounded.

“[The H1N1 vaccination] has not been rushed at all and has gone through a very rigorous testing process,” Miller said. “It is prepared the exact same way, in eggs, as the regular seasonal flu kill vaccine.”

The vaccine is simply a variation of the doses people have been receiving for decades to help prevent the regular seasonal flu.

“We have to recognize this virus is here. It’s everywhere, and people need to do the best they can to prevent infection,” Miller said.