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UMass prepares for swine flu threat

Although it may have been the last thing on the minds of most University of Massachusetts students as they enjoyed their summer break, the very real possibility of a campus-wide outbreak of the swine flu (H1N1) virus over the upcoming semester has had university officials preparing for a wide range of possible scenarios.

On Thursday, it was widely reported by national media outlets that over 2,600 students at Washington State University have contracted swine flu, and that number could rise to as many as 9,000 students if CDC estimates are accurate. Such a situation occurring on the UMass campus is highly unlikely, but most university officials are weary of ruling anything out when preparing for the H1N1 virus, which is especially contagious among school-aged populations.

“Higher educational institutions, like K-12 schools, have been cited by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as workplaces which may be impacted greater by the H1N1 virus than other workplaces due to the concentration of children and young adults 5 to 24 years of age,” said Juan A. Jarrett, assistant vice-chancellor for human resources, in a memo to UMass faculty and staff sent out last Friday.

“This age group has shown more susceptibility to the H1N1 virus,” continued the memorandum. “Reported cases of H1N1, or Swine flu, have remained steady this year, and the CDC expects reported cases of H1N1 to dramatically increase during this year’s upcoming flu season.”

One theory suggested by the CDC and others for the H1N1’s strong effects on young people is that they have not lived through other decades when the virus was more prevalent, and therefore have less natural resistance to the virus.

In a media briefing on Sep. 3, Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Center for Disease Control, estimated that the H1N1 vaccine will not be available until mid-October. Clinical trials into the effects of the vaccine are still ongoing, and the CDC has also suggested that as many as 40 percent of the population will come in contact with H1N1, despite the fact that most people will only exhibit minor symptoms.

“We have worked closely with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health,” said University of Massachusetts spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski. “We are certainly aware of federal guidance on the matter, and working closely on that front.”

The university has a number of suggestions for students and faculty to help them avoid coming in contact with the virus, including frequent hand-washing and limiting contact with those exhibiting flu-like symptoms. Jarrett’s memo also recommended that anyone exhibiting flu-like symptoms themselves should visit their health care provider as soon as possible, “in order to decide the best course of action.”

University officials have based much of their response on existing federal guidelines for addressing the H1N1 threat in collegiate settings.

Besides taking cues from the government, Blaguszewski also noted that UMass is taking cues from peer institutions, as well.

“We are aware of what other colleges and universities are doing in institutions such as ours,” said Blaguszewski. “They are taking their lead from the public health officials in the state. We are well-prepared, but we need to monitor the situation closely.”

The UMass administration has sent out a number of emails to students in order to inform them of what they could face this semester, and the university seems intent on keeping the student body updated on what could be a rapidly-changing state of affairs.

“A lot of messages went out to parents and students as the semester approached,” said Blaguszewski. “There will be communication within residence halls [and elsewhere] as the semester goes on, with university students, faculty and staff.”

Students are advised to visit http://www.umass.edu/uhs/services/publichealth to get up to date information on H1N1, and to learn ways that one can avoid the virus.

Nick Bush can be reached at nbush@student.umass.edu.

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