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May 2, 2009

Everything you want to know about Swine Flu / H1N1 but were afraid to ask

As the number of swine flu cases in the United States grows, health-care experts in every state are planning strategies for coping with the disease, which includes a panoply of medical advice and a good deal of common sense. At universities across the country, where large numbers of students share close quarters in dormitories and classrooms, health service staff are working to educate students, faculty, and staff about practical preventive measures. They are also hoping that the virus will keep its distance from campus as final exams and commencement exercises approach.

At BU, officials are in regular contact with the Boston Public Health Commission, and they are carefully tracking the daily recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). On campus, several steps have been taken to minimize risk. Hand sanitizer dispensers have been made available, and custodial staff are carefully cleaning public spaces. At Student Health Services, director David McBride says that all students with respiratory illness are being asked to wear a mask. The Boston Globe reports that there are no confirmed cases of the virus in Boston, and that the only two cases reported in Massachusetts have recovered, and did not spread the virus to people who were in close contact with them. Massachusetts has 50,000 doses of antiviral medications that are effective against the current strain of swine flu, he says, and the CDC is sending the state hundreds of thousands more doses from the national stockpile.

“A situation like this can be alarming,” McBride says. “Everyone should know that the University is doing what it can to ensure the protection of our community.”

Swine Flu FAQs

The following questions were culled from conversations with students, faculty, and administrators across campus. Answers come from SHS director McBride, David Ozonoff, a School of Public Health professor of environmental health, and the CDC.

More questions are bound to arise. As they do, send them to We’ll do our best to find the answers.

Massachusetts residents can also call (2-1-1) for basic information about swine flu. Additional information is available from the CDC, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and the Boston Public Health Commission.

Will graduation, summer programs, or orientation be canceled? - Everything is still on track. If the situation changes for the worse, Boston University will work closely with the Boston Public Health Commission to decide what to do. The BPHC is the city’s focal point for responding to public health issues, and has stated that it may — repeat may — recommend closure if there is a case of H1N1 flu on any campus in Boston. A full assessment of the situation would be made in consultation with the BPHC, and a decision announced.

What if I'm sick and I have to take a final? - If you’re sick, you should stay home and stay away from other people.

Where should I study for finals — is it safe to be in the library? - As long as there is no swine flu at Boston University or in Boston, being in public is as safe as ever.

If my roommate gets sick, what should I do? - If someone has swine flu, they will need to be isolated from the general student population. As a close contact, you would need to monitor yourself closely for seven days after your last contact with the ill person. SHS will work closely with exposed students to give advice. Routine administration of antiviral medication is not recommended for healthy contacts with someone infected with flu.

How long should I be isolated if I’m sick? Where should I do this? -If you’re sick, you should isolate yourself until your symptoms have resolved, plus 24 hours. It is best to do this in a private room where others will not be exposed to you.

How does swine flu spread? - The flu spreads mainly through coughing or sneezing. People should be extra careful to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze. Cough or sneeze into your sleeve or a tissue, not into your hands. This keeps germs from being spread into your hands.

What can I do to stay healthy? - Get plenty of sleep, eat well, and exercise. Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hands cleaners are also effective. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread that way.

My family is coming tomorrow from Mexico/San Diego/San Antonio — what should I do? - If a traveler is coming from an area of high transmission, travel may not be advised. Certainly if a family member is sick with flu-like symptoms, he or she should not travel. The CDC will continue to issues travel advisories, but as yet there is only a recommendation to avoid nonessential travel to and from Mexico.

Can you tell the difference between swine flu and “regular” flu or between swine flu and seasonal allergies? - The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has facilities set up to “subtype” flu and has trained 140 labs around the country to do the same. Until that test is conclusive, there is no way of knowing for sure what kind of flu you might have contracted. Flu of all kinds tends to subside at this time of year, while allergies erupt with the spring blossoms. One key difference in symptoms between the two is body temperature; flu will cause fever and body aches, allergies usually do not.

Students can always call SHS for advice from a nurse or health-care provider if they are unsure about whether they need to be seen in person. If students have more severe symptoms, fever in particular (greater than 100 degrees F), they should come to SHS or see their regular physician for evaluation. Call ahead to let SHS know that you are coming so that we can make a mask immediately available.

Does BU have antivirals on hand? - We plan to use local pharmacies to provide students with antiviral medication based on a written prescription. SHS has obtained a small supply of medication to keep on hand when this is no longer an option. The state has obtained a large amount of antiviral medication, which may be made available, depending on the course of the flu outbreak.

Can you get swine flu from pork? - Absolutely, unequivocally no. Indeed, there is a move afoot to stop calling this strain of flu “swine,” and use the scientific term — H1N1 — as President Obama did in his news conference Wednesday night.

Will University officials close buildings to sanitize them? - Closing buildings to “sanitize” them would accomplish nothing. Buildings cannot be sterilized, any more than the people who move through them can be made antiseptic. What works much better is old-fashioned hand washing, and the University already has placed scores of antigerm dispensers around campus to make that process simple and easy.

Should students planning to go home between the end of finals and the beginning of summer session not go home? - There are no travel restrictions in place, but good common sense should come into play. If a student lives in an area where there has been a documented flu outbreak — for example, Mexico — it would probably make sense to stay here.

If students have the option, should they travel by car instead of plane? - No public health official is calling for travel restrictions, either within the country or across borders. But then again, if you ever had a hankering to take a road trip and see a slice of America, this might be a great time to do it.

I’m supposed to travel out of the country in the next couple of weeks. Is there a vaccine for swine flu? If I’ll be traveling, should I take medication to prevent the flu? - The Centers for Disease Control Web site provides the best up-to-date information about travel advisories. Travelers should plan to check that site up to the day of travel as advisories may change. There is no vaccine for the swine flu. The CDC is not recommending that healthy people take preventive medication before traveling to an area of high occurrence.

By BU Today

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