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N.C. colleges faces challenges posed by flu season

Krzyzewskiville residents aren't the only ones getting sick this winter.

Universities across the state are scrambling in response to an unexpected outbreak of influenza, which has left hundreds ill and sent many others in search of late-season vaccinations.

"What we are seeing is a dramatic increase from last year in the number of flu cases," said Carole Kozel, the nursing director for student health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, "influenza-like illnesses" accounted for 4.2 percent of hospital and clinic visits in the state last week, up from just more than one percent at the same time last year.

Dr. Devdutta Sangvai, medical director of the Duke Student Health Center, estimated that the clinic sees about a dozen cases of the flu on average in January. This year, however, there were more than 50, most of whom were students who had not received a flu vaccine.

"Interestingly, we gave more flu vaccinations... than in the past," Sangvai said. "But we're seeing more cases of the flu too."

The surge is mirrored at universities throughout North Carolina. UNC and North Carolina State University both reported increased flu transmission this year.

But no campus was hit harder than Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. After an inconspicuous start to the flu season last fall, the school was rocked by 260 cases in a single 10-day period in mid-January. At its peak, Wake's Student Health Services reported more than 50 new infections per day, nearly all of them undergraduates.

"For a couple of weeks there, it was very severe," said Kevin Cox, director of media relations at Wake Forest. "People [in student health] were certainly working long hours."

He noted that universities face a unique challenge in combatting the flu--to keep students who live, eat and attend classes every day in close quarters from spreading a virus that is highly contagious.

"We're a very residential school, and it doesn't take long in this environment for the flu to spread to a large number of [people in] the student body," he said. "You can't just cancel classes either, because students are still together all the time."

In response to the outbreak, Wake Forest offered an unplanned vaccination clinic the last weekend in January, Cox said. More than 300 students and staff members turned out to armor themselves against the virus sweeping their campus.

At Duke, flu shots-which take effect about two weeks after injection--remain available at the Student Health Center, Sangvai said. But it is a challenge to convince students that the vaccination is still useful.

"A lot of people just think there's no point at this time in the year," he said.

He added that while the flu season generally ends in March, cases crop up sporadically through April.

While it is possible to get the flu after being vaccinated, it is rare, said Dr. Mary Bengtson, medical director and a staff physician at NCSU's Student Health Services.

"The best thing you can do for yourself is just to go out and get the vaccine," she said.

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