At Elon University, the spring semester may be beginning, but some students are lacking a spring in their step due to illnesses. Apparently, things are just getting started.
Medical Director of Student Health Services Ginette Archinal said increased illness frequency does not come as a surprise, especially when it comes to influenza — commonly known as the flu.
“Flu we actually are seeing more this year than we saw this time last year, but it’s not more than usual,” Archinal said. “This year the flu incidences have gone up from about the middle of December, really going up. " She said the flu is to blame for approximately three percent of visits to the Student Health Center now, which would mean Elon is mirroring the wider community.
In North Carolina, the influenza-like illness activity levels are still on the lower end of the spectrum according to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions’s Influenza Surveillance Report published Jan. 14. Neighboring states of Tennessee and South Carolina, however, were classified in the report as having especially high activity levels in January.
“Influenza activity in the United States was low in October 2016, and has been slowly increasing since November 2016 … during the 2015–16 season, activity did not begin to increase until early January and peaked in mid-March,” the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Report published in on Dec. 30, 2016 said. “While it is not possible to predict when influenza activity will peak for the current season, influenza activity will likely increase in the coming weeks.”
Archinal said cases of the flu at Elon peaked last year in February and March, but she said this is a regular occurrence.
“Generally, if you look at all the graphs, the numbers start going up towards the end of December and start going up toward the end of January and there’s always a second peak in late February to early March,” Archinal said.
She said suspects the peak will be slightly higher this year because fewer people have gotten their flu vaccination.
Nationwide, influenza-like illnesses accounted for three percent of patient visits reported to the U.S. Outpatient Influenza-like Illness Surveillance Network. The national baseline, according to the CDC, is two percent. During this time last year, the percentage was below two percent and did not cross the threshold until the end of February.
“The real problem nationwide this year — and this again happens every year — we have a really bad flu season, like we did two years ago, and therefore the following year, which was last year, more people get their flu shot,” Archinal said. “You have a quiet flu season and people don’t feel as pressured to get their flu shot.”
According to the Morbidity and Mortality Report from the CDC, approximately 60 percent of the U.S. population had not been vaccinated as of November 2016. This number represents a 5.6 percent increase from the overall 2015-2016 season.
Between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 seasons, the CDC said that the number of unvaccinated Americans rose 1.5 percent. According to their report, this declining trend of flu vaccinations is due to decreased vaccinations among individuals more than 50 years and older.
Archinal said the decline in vaccination rates is what contributes to a “worse” flu season, rather than the strain of influenza.
“Last year, it was not a terribly good match, the strain of flu and the vaccine, but this year it’s a much better match. It’s actually a far more effective flu vaccine this year,” she said.
Archinal said she recommends that students who have yet to be vaccinated do so soon to prepare themselves for the February/March peak.
“It takes two weeks for a flu shot to work, so anybody who hasn’t had their flu vaccine at this point, it is still effective to protect against that sickness,” she said.
Freshmen Jordan Shaw said she is “religious” about washing her hands, but that didn’t stop her from getting sick last week.
She said she thinks it is almost impossible to avoid getting sick while living on campus.
“You just have to stop breathing and live in a bubble,” Shaw said.
But there is no need for everyone to start living like Jake Gyllenhaal’s character from “Bubble Boy,” according to Archinal.
“Prevention is easy,” she said. “It’s pretty basic. It’s the basic hygiene your parents tried to teach you when you were starting kindergarten.”
Basic hygiene, Archinal said, means “wash your hands, don’t share drinks, don’t share Chap Stick and use hand sanitizer.”
Shaw said she will admit that she isn’t the best about avoiding sharing others’ food and drinks, but she plans to improve in the future after her latest illness.
It probably doesn’t help that Shaw lives on campus, according to Archinal.
“Starting your first year in a dorm on campus is like kindergarten, or daycare or if you go to a boarding school,” Archinal said. “You’re exposed to a lot of bugs, a lot of people you haven’t been exposed to before and it takes your immune system a while to deal with that.”
According to the World Health Organization’s influenza fact sheet, the flu, like most viruses, can spread especially rapidly and with ease through crowded areas, like classrooms and dormitories.
Among the other viruses which can spread in this fashion are strep throat, conjunctivitis and mono, which are also common this time of year, Archinal said.
Shaw didn’t know if she was afflicted with the flu or a different viral illness but did notice her respiratory symptoms — raspy cough and sore throat — and high fever were flu-like.
She did not rule out the flu because she was not vaccinated this year. “I’m afraid of needles,” Shaw said. A positive flu test, however, or a trip to the clinic are the only ways to be sure, and Shaw said she had not done either.
“There are two things you can do when you’re looking at the flu,” Archinal said. “You can do a flu test, and if it’s positive, absolutely diagnose the flu. A negative flu test does not 100 percent rule out the flu, and you don’t require a positive flu test to make a diagnosis of the flu, and a lot of people don’t realize that.”
She said that the Student Health Center’s criteria for diagnosing the flu are based on CDC guidelines because the clinic is a CDC reporting site.
Students, Archinal said, should make an appointment if they have a fever of 100 degrees or higher.
“If you don’t have a thermometer, the symptoms you have when you have a fever over 100 are you feel terrible, you’ve got sweats and chills and you generally look pretty awful as well,” she said.
While a fever is not a guarantee, Archinal said, it is usually what indicates an individual is suffering from more than just the common cold. During Winter Term, she said most cases of the flu she encountered were also characterized by respiratory symptoms.
According to Mayo Clinic the most commons signs of the flu in addition to a fever are aching muscles, chills and sweats, headaches, coughing, fatigue, nasal congestion and a sore throat.
The Student Health Center has altered their appointment-booking system in order to accommodate the students who wake up suddenly ill.
“Anybody who’s tried to book appointments these days will have noticed most of them they can’t book until the same day because when somebody wakes up in the morning with a temperature of 101, we want to be sure we can see them that day,” Archinal said.