Influenza showed up early and uninvited this winter and has since taken a toll on North Carolina.
Seasonal influenza, which normally begins to show up in the United States shortly after New Year’s, made its advent in late November this year and has infected hundreds of people across North Carolina and several on Duke’s campus. Duke and community health leaders are responding with widespread vaccination against the flu.
“Student Health is prepared to provide flu shots to any student who wants one,” said Sue Wasiolek, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “We will continue to encourage students to get a flu shot.”
Providers at Student Health Services are invoking the same preventative measures as usual by giving out as many flu shots as possible and encouraging increased awareness of hygiene, such as covering one’s mouth when coughing or sneezing and staying home from class and extracurriculars when sick. An email sent over the weekend by Student Health warned students of the symptoms of both flu and norovirus.
Student Health previously sought to prepare students for the flu season by offering shots in the Bryan Center last semester, Wasiolek added. Students also had the opportunity to receive free flu shots at East Campus locations and may make an appointment to get one at the Student Health Center. The Student Health Center will be offering an additional opportunity to receive flu shots Tuesday from 6-8 p.m. in the Great Hall.
“Flu this year is more widespread and much earlier than last year, so it has more media attention,” wrote Dr. Kimberly Yarnall, medical director of Student Health Services, in an email Monday. “Health care providers are always concerned about flu in the winter months—[it] came early this year.”
So far, 17 people in North Carolina have died from flu complications since flu season began. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services logged 276 influenza cases statewide since Oct. 6.
“It is very unusual for us to see this many deaths so early in the flu season,” said state health director Laura Gerald in a Dec. 21 press release. “This year’s vaccine is well-matched to the strains of flu we are seeing in North Carolina so we strongly recommend that anyone over six months old be vaccinated.”
Mark Van Sciver, a representative from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, noted that a seemingly high death toll may not necessarily mean that 2013 will be a high death year.
Van Sciver noted that the number of deaths is higher than in past years, but the flu season also started significantly earlier. Additionally, 13 out of the deaths were people over 60 years old, several with preexisting conditions.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47 states including North Carolina reported widespread geographic influenza activity during the week ending Jan. 5. Twenty-four of those states also reported an especially high level of influenza-like illness. A slight decrease in activity was recorded last week in North Carolina, although Van Sciver said this may only be a temporary trend.
“Flu season won’t be over until March,” he said.
Although the variant of influenza A more commonly known as H1N1 virus or swine flu has not been as prevalent this season as in 2009, it has still been identified, he noted. The prevalence of H1N1, however, has been helpful by setting a precedent in student and local health centers such as Duke’s. Wasiolek noted that the H1N1 outbreak heightened awareness of the flu and its ability to negatively affect individuals and communities like Duke.
“Everybody needs to be concerned because the flu can spread, especially on a college campus where it is confined,” Van Sciver said. “[The flu shot] is not a guarantee—it is 60 percent effective—but it is the best protection.”
Wasiolek, Yarnall and Van Sciver all encouraged those who had not gotten flu shots yet to do so and be especially vigilant about hand washing.