Campuses prepare for lethal flu outbreaks

Universities across the country are preparing for the possibility of an avian flu outbreak on their campuses, though some question whether it’s necessary.

Last month, George Washington University created a task force to work with an ad hoc committee on infectious diseases established by its medical center to prepare for an avian flu outbreak.

Not to be left behind, Auburn University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Bowdoin College, UCLA, University of Michigan, and University of Minnesota have made similar plans to counter a possible outbreak.

The avian flu, which is caused by avian influenza viruses, occurs naturally in birds and is not a common risk to humans. However, a few cases of human infection have occurred since 1997, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yet as colleges prepare for the flu, some observers remain skeptical about what such actions can accomplish. According to Wendy Orent, an anthropologist and author of numerous essays on infectious diseases, colleges may be overreacting.

“Why would colleges need any special preparation?” Orent said, citing the flu’s inability to turn into a human-adapted disease. “I’d rather see all college-age kids get their meningitis shots than worry about bird flu, at this point. Meningitis is a clear and present danger on campus. Bird flu isn’t.”

Though there is a chance the avian flu could adapt to the human immune system, making it more of a risk to the general population, Orent said the facilities already on most university campuses would be sufficient to handle an outbreak.

“If it gets to be (human-adapted) – a big if – you’ll have to have a way of distributing shots on campus, probably, I would imagine, through student health services,” she said. “Dispensing shots to college students, most of whom are presumably already on campus, seems like a trivial problem to me compared with immunizing the mass of Americans, who really won’t know where to go.”

Still, others said that schools are wise to take caution. Kathy Welch-Krause, a nurse at Ripon College in Wisconsin, said she thinks students are particularly at risk.

“Most viruses go on what medical professionals call a U-curve, which means infants and young children will die and also elderly people,” Welch-Krause told College Days. “But this flu will be different because it will be on what’s called a W-curve, so it will affect infants and young children, and it will affect a lot of people in their 20s. So it really puts the college-age population at great risk.”

Some schools have gotten specific. Frederick Kam, director of the medical center at Auburn University, said he has already thought about actions his school might take in the case of an outbreak.

“Part of my plan would be to institute an outdoor covered entity we could evaluate patients rapidly,” said, in an interview with television station WTVM in Columbus, Ohio. “You have fresh air so you don’t have air conditioning or recirculating air and the risk of spreading it to others is greatly decreased.”

Despite the increased attention on the avian flu, studies show that many are still misinformed about the disease. A poll this month by the Center for Consumer Freedom found that almost half of the polled Americans erroneously thought people can catch bird flu by eating chicken.

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