Beer pong may pose flu threat

Swine flu has hit colleges and universities hard across the country, and the virus may make students think twice before participating in a beloved pastime – drinking games.

Students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a university in upstate New York, were recently advised by the head of the school’s student health center to refrain from playing drinking games, like beer pong, after several of the then-21 reported cases were attributed to the game, according to an Oct. 9 H1N1 update from the school.

“Unfortunately, some of our current cases were apparently contracted during a weekend drinking game. Do not share drinks. Alcohol does not kill the virus or prevent its spread from person to person,” Dr. Leslie Lawrence, the head of RPI’s student health center, said in the update. “While it might seem fun over the weekend, it will not be enjoyable when you and your friends are sick and missing class or midterm examinations.”

Susan Haney, the associate director of GW’s Student Health Service, said games like beer pong can spread flu germs. Beer pong is typically played between four players who throw two ping pong balls into the other team’s cups. If the ball lands in the cup, a player must drink the beer inside.

“The close contact during a social event provides a possible source of transmission,” Haney said. “The virus is thought to live on surfaces for two to eight hours. The shared cups and ping pong balls could also be a source of transmission.”

But most students continue to play the game despite potential health ramifications. None of the estimated 593 reported cases at GW have been specifically attributed to drinking games, Haney said, and beer pong is as common as midterms at many colleges.

“It is something I think about – beer pong is definitely a really good way to spread swine flu,” senior Josh Cohan said. “So I think about it, but there are so many ways to get exposed to swine flu that I’m probably just going to go ahead and play anyway.”

Although all who play the game may not become sick, studies show there is a significant amount of bacteria involved in the game. In 2006, two lab partners in a GW microbiology class tested the bacterial ramifications of playing beer pong for their class by engineering a game where eight people played for three hours with a 30-pack of beer.

The two students, Aaron Heffner and Ben Morrissey, both 2007 graduates, found that the materials used for the game had gathered a family of bacteria that included E. coli, pneumonia and salmonella. The water cup used to wash off the ball between plays had the highest levels of bacteria.

Cohan said he examines the cups before he plays, and washes out any that look dirty.

Dr. Isabel Goldenberg, director of SHS, said students should refrain from engaging in a variety of social activities if they are sick, including drinking games.

“Sharing drinking utensils will put patients at high risk of contracting the flu. The virus is spread through saliva,” Goldenberg said. “Sharing [through] pong is a high risk behavior.”

However, the flu can also be easily transmitted simply through social contact, and beer pong is only one of a multitude of ways it can be spread, Haney said.

“Both seasonal flu and H1N1 are thought to be spread from person to person by droplets through the air or on surfaces. It is usually spread through coughing, sneezing or close contact with someone who has the flu,” Haney said.

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