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W&L Preparing for H1N1 Influenza

With the return of students to its campus imminent, Washington and Lee University is launching an information campaign to alert the community to the threat of the novel H1N1 influenza, commonly known as swine flu.

W&L experienced more than a dozen confirmed cases of the virus last May when the outbreaks first began around the country and the world.

In a presentation at the Governors Preparedness Conference in Richmond earlier this month, Dr. Jane Horton, director of student health and counseling at Washington and Lee, said that colleges and universities will be on the front line for influenza outbreaks this fall and winter with both season and novel H1N1 viruses likely to be circulating.

“Social distancing and personal protection guidelines will need to be adopted early and followed consistently by a significant proportion of the college or university community to slow spread of the virus,” Horton told the conference. “Effective education of all students, faculty and staff will be a key to success.”

With that in mind, W&L Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Dawn Watkins has begun to initiate a series of steps that will begin with the arrival of students later this month.

“We will use all the tools at our disposal to reach the returning students and alert them to this very real threat. In addition, we’ll be communicating consistently with faculty and staff and keeping the entire community informed on our situation,” said Watkins. “Not only do we plan to use normal channels for communication but we anticipate some mention of the flu in almost every venue possible, including convocations, athletic events, and special town hall meetings.”

A special Web site, which was developed last May when flu cases were active on the campus, will continue to be a primary communication tool. The address for that site is go.wlu.edu/health.

Communications to the entire University community will include information on respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene, which are essential to reducing the spread of influenza and other respiratory infections. One particular focus of the communication among students will be a reminder about the potential for transmission at parties where beverage cups are often shared.

“We realized in the spring that this practice had great potential to spread the virus and began including that warning among the other health practices we were recommending,” Watkins said. “We will continue to emphasize that this fall as one central feature of our communications program.”

Among the challenges that the novel H1N1 virus presents, according to Horton, is that many people may not recognize they have the flu since its symptoms have often not been severe.

“If someone has just a cold or sore throat and does connect this with H1N1, they will likely not follow the isolation guidelines, which now suggest that self-isolate for at least 24 hours after their fever has gone in order to avoid making other sick,” Horton said.

On the other hand, the potential for many individuals to want to take antiviral medication may pose challenges as well, Horton said, since the use of such medication is recommended only for individuals at risk of complications from influenza, and overuse will drain resources and may increase the risk of the virus developing resistance to current antiviral medications.

Horton also told the Richmond conference that both seasonal and novel H1N1 influenza virus immunization programs for students, faculty and staff will be important in trying to slow or minimize the impact of influenza. Washington and Lee plans to participate in the immunization program for the novel H1N1 influenza virus for target populations as it is developed by the Virginia Department of Health, as well as offering the seasonal influenza vaccine.