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From sniffles to serious illness, Student Health Center is prepared

E. Cassandra Jordan
Brooke D. Durland

By E. Cassandra Jordan and Brooke D. Durland

Threats to public health can become challenges for university health centers. Outbreaks of intestinal illness or seasonal flu can spread rapidly through groups of students living in close quarters, such as residence halls.

Typically, students are healthy young adults and suffer only temporary misery and rarely require hospitalization or incur long-term ill effects.

On occasion, cases of contagious disease such as mumps or measles seriously disrupt campus activity. Just this past spring, several colleges in the Midwest dealt with the largest outbreak of mumps in recent history. This prompted public health experts to affirm that students are better protected if given two mumps vaccinations. Previous New York state and RIT immunization requirements called for a single shot, which has been the accepted standard. Students have been urged to consult their primary care provider about their mumps immunization status.

As the local public health officials on campus, student health center staff assume some responsibility for educating students about disease prevention. Our health promotion campaign for this fall focuses on strategies for protecting against the spread of colds and flu. Posters encouraging hand washing and acceptable “cough etiquette” dot the campus; newly installed hand sanitizer dispensers have been installed in the health center and dining halls. National experts continue to emphasize the importance of simple, basic hand washing as the most effective disease prevention habit.

Another recommendation to help weather the seasonal flu is to get a flu shot.

Most of today’s college health professionals are accustomed to dealing with infrequent outbreaks of infectious diseases in the campus community but have never faced the threat presented by pandemic flu. Avian influenza (subtype H5N1), also known as “bird flu,” has been a hot topic in the media.

Public health experts and government officials have expressed concern that mutation of the H5N1 virus – making human to human transmission easier – could spark a worldwide outbreak of infection. The World Health

Organization and federal agencies are making preparations in the event of a pandemic and have urged all other communities to do so as well.

The Student Health Center has developed an emergency medical response plan for RIT students. The plan was created using resources from the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Monroe County Health Department, and the Office of Emergency Preparedness, and in collaboration with the RIT Critical Incident Management Planning Committee (CIMP), and other essential campus services. The plan includes ongoing education about avian influenza, identifying critical resources for a variety of scenarios, rehearsing emergency drills, and having medical supplies and equipment readily available.

Outbreaks of communicable diseases have the potential for significantly impacting the campus community. It may become necessary to restrict activities or even close campus temporarily. The scope of such an impact and the limited resources to provide appropriate care to large numbers of very ill students strongly suggests the need for parents and students to be proactive in planning for students to abide by restrictions, or in some cases, to go home.

The CDC Web site (www.cdc.gov) is an excellent source for information on communicable diseases. The Student Health Center Web site, www.rit.edu/studenthealth, features a section on frequently asked questions about avian flu and links to several pertinent federal agencies.

Jordan is director of RIT’s Student Health Center. Durland is the center’s medical director.