By Eric Blackstock and Ben Shafer
RICHMOND, Va. – Officials at Virginia Commonwealth University are warning students to exercise precaution as swine flu, known officially as novel H1N1 influenza, may spread on campus this year.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified more than 40,000 cases of H1N1 in the United States. Colleges and universities have been declared “points of spread” for the virus.
“The problem is that the people it’s affecting are not who we would expect,” said Dr. Margaret Roberson, the Director of University Health Services at VCU. “You would not expect young healthy people to get flu more easily than elderly people.”
Roberson says if students have flu-like symptoms, they are being advised by the university to stay home and isolate themselves from others. Faculty at VCU are being asked to be flexible should students have unexcused absences due to illness.
“A lot of times, students will be afraid to not go to class if they’re ill and we want to encourage them if they feel ill to stay home to prevent spread,” said Roberson.
However, some students at VCU say they may continue going to classes should they feel ill.
“I get three absences, [and] then I have to retake a semester. I’m going to go to class,” said VCU freshman Johnathan Tune.
The CDC and VCU Student Health are both recommending that covering mouths when a person coughs or sneezes, and practicing good hand hygiene are the best ways to prevent spread of H1N1.
“I think that it takes care of a lot of the bacteria and viruses in general that do get on you,” said freshman Stella Petrova. “Because I mean, you kind of do a lot of stuff with your hands in general, so why not clean them?”
Though the World Health Organization has risen H1N1 to a pandemic level (widespread human infection), Roberson says the main focus for members of the VCU community should be to spread awareness.
“There’s definitely no reason for panic, but it is a good time for people to start realizing they need to prevent illness,” said Roberson.
Traditional flu vaccinations will not prevent H1N1, but will allow health officials to more easily identify if a person is infected with the disease. They will be available at VCU Student Health, free to students, this month.
Vaccinations for H1N1 are not currently available, but will be offered after VCU receives shipments.
Students with questions or concerns about H1N1 are encouraged to contact Student Health on either VCU campus. Locations and other information can be found online at http://www.students.vcu.edu/health/