by Meaghan Dodson ’17
For Providence College students, the month of February signals that the semester is well underway. Students have memorized their class schedules, figured out homework and gym routines, and—more often than not—kept an eager eye on the weekly snow forecasts. All too frequently, however, February also announces the arrival of something a little less welcome: flu season. To help students both prevent and care for the flu, The Cowl sat down with the Student Health Center’s physician, Dr. Suzanne Bornschein, M.D., who came armed with advice on how to best combat this virus.
Cowl: A couple of weeks ago the student body received an email warning about a flu outbreak. Do we know what particular flu strain we have here at PC?
Suzanne Bornschein: With support of Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) we were able to determine that we have an Influenza A -H3 strain. There may also be a secondary B strain present, but for the most part it appears that our students are sick with an A strain. This is good news because the flu shot this year has protection against the A-H3 strain.
Cowl: How can you prevent and treat the flu?
SB: Flu shots are the single best way to prevent the flu. The earlier the better. Health services offered sdssseveral on-campus student flu shot clinics during the fall, and if students missed those they can always go to their primary care doctors or to local pharmacies.
The CVS and Walgreens on Admiral Street are the perfect places to get the shot.
How does the government determine which strains to protect against in the flu shot?
SB: The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) works with the World Health Organization (WHO) to track influenza strains throughout the world and determine what strains are most likely to be the predominant strains for the coming year.
There are three different strains in each flu shot. The CDC also has a flu tracker that is updated weekly and shows where the flu is, how prevalent it is, and what the particular strains are.
Cowl: Once a person receives the shot, how long does it take for him or her to become immune to the flu? How long does your flu shot last?
SB: It takes two weeks to reach full immunity. But during those two weeks you have partial immunity, so that’s still something. [It lasts] all year. A great time to get your flu shot is in August before you go back to school.
Cowl: You said that the shot lasts all year, but when specifically is the peak flu season?
SB: The peak season is in February, but numbers are still very high in January and March. We predict that the flu season will go into March and even April, so it’s definitely not too late to go get a flu shot!
Cowl: Some people have mentioned something called Tamiflu. What is it, and what does it do?
SB: I do get asked about Tamiflu a lot. Tamiflu is an anti-viral drug—an oseltamivir—that can be taken as both a preventative drug and a treatment for the flu. If someone comes in with flu-like symptoms, we can offer them Tamiflu as a treatment strategy that will reduce the length of the illness and make them less contagious. It is a different dosage—once a day for 14 days—and it definitely decreases the likelihood of getting the full flu-like illness. Tamiflu, however, is no substitute for a flu shot.
Cowl: How can someone differentiate between the cold and the flu?
SB: Classically, flu presents itself with a fever, headache, and body ache—it’s really just a malaise, that beautiful French word for not feeling well. Upper respiratory symptoms, like coughing, sneezing, and even sore throat are also very common. When people come in with flu-like symptoms, initially we offer testing for the flu. Once there is a certain percentage of positive flu swabs, we can become an outbreak site. The RIDOH determined a flu outbreak site here around three weeks ago, and so now we’re past swabbing. Flu swabs are not sensitive tests, which means that there is a 30-50 percent chance of a false negative. At this point, if students come in looking like they have the flu, we treat them for the flu.
Cowl: How is the illness spread?
SB: In a college community, population density makes it so much easier to share germs and viruses. If you have multiple people sharing a room or a kitchen, you increase the chances of catching something. The flu is aerosolized, meaning that it is transmitted through airborne droplets. This means that, rather than sterilizing surfaces, students should practice proper cold techniques. Covering your sneezes and coughs with your elbow is the best way to do this.
Cowl: Who is most susceptible to the flu?
SB: The people we worry about are people with underlying illnesses—for example, patients with diabetes, asthma, and people taking immunosuppressant drugs, because these are the people who can get complications from the flu. We want to make sure they come forward and take preventive medication!
Cowl: Finally, what should people do if they are indeed diagnosed with the flu?
SB: To put it simply, we want them to socially isolate and wear a face mask in public settings until the fever is under 100 degrees for 24 hours. Communicate with your professors, alert your RAs, and get a “flu buddy” to bring you food and medicine. We have a kind, caring community here at PC—ask a friend or roommate to bring you Gatorade, Tylenol, flu bags from the health center, etc. Practice self-care; give yourself time to rest and recover so you can be up and moving again as soon as possible.