TUESDAY, Sept. 8, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Erica Goldfine, a senior at American University in Washington, D.C., returned to school this semester to find a new item in her college handbook, right after academic policies on cheating: emergency preparedness procedures for the H1N1 swine flu.
It wasn't a total surprise: Goldfine had been receiving e-mails all summer on the subject.
She and other students (there are more than 9,000 of them at American University) have been told that they are to stay home if they're even a tiny bit sick. The same is expected of professors.
To compensate for any potential outbreak, the administration is offering all classes on the Web so students can "attend" from a safe distance if they do start coughing and sneezing.
Goldfine is not that concerned.
"I don't see it spiraling out of control," she said. "Plus, I think my brother, sister-in-law and I all got the swine flu when I was visiting them in China recently. It was like a pretty bad cold and we are all fine, thank God."
But with major outbreaks of H1N1 flu occurring at campuses across the United States, and one death recently reported at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, universities are putting detailed prevention and containment plans in place.
"Kids share close quarters with one another and interact personally and physically, and they're not necessarily attuned to hygiene measures that are important for any kind of disease," said Dr. Melinda Moore, senior health researcher at Rand Corp., and the mother of two college students. "Didn't your mother tell you to wash your hands anyway to prevent disease transmission, period? A pandemic makes it more important to do so because it readily spreads from person to person, and the virus will try to infect everyone in the world," she added.
"My kids just went back to college," said Moore, who spent 20 years with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an epidemiologist. "I'm curious to see what messages they are getting. I want to make sure they are getting messages."
The CDC last week reported that with hundreds of students sick with swine flu on at least 17 U.S. college campuses, this is the highest rate of influenza infection for this time of year since the last pandemic flu, the Hong Kong flu, struck in 1968.
The rate of infections could serve as a sign of what's to come for the general population as the flu season takes hold.
To get the attention of college students, the CDC plans to promote vaccines on popular social networking sites, such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
The American College Health Association has instituted a surveillance system to monitor influenza-like illness at 165 U.S. universities with a total of 2 million students. That system logged 1,640 cases in the last week of August.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison, with 42,000 students and 18,000 faculty and staff, is one of the institutions participating in the project.
Its plan has included: e-mails to everyone on campus from the chancellor, provost or dean of students, and a flyer, What You Can Do About the Flu, handed out to students living on campus and e-mailed to all students.
That hasn't kept the virus completely at bay on campus, however.
"We are starting to see an increase in cases here. That's kind of what we expected, and it's similar to what we're seeing nationwide," said Dr. Sarah Van Orman, executive director of university health services at University of Wisconsin-Madison. "We're really stressing isolation of people who are sick and hygiene and all things that support that, making sure people are excused academically and making sure there are adequate supplies to practice good hygiene."
Efforts are being focused on people with underlying medical conditions or those with severe symptoms, although all cases so far have been mild, Van Orman said, adding that there are no plans right now to cancel classes.
To prevent contracting the flu, experts urge common-sense measures, including staying away from sick people, staying away from people if you are sick and washing your hands properly.
That means making sure your hands are clean before you touch your face (particularly your nose or mouth, gateways for the virus) or other people. "You don't get the virus from your hands. You get it from introducing it to your eyes, nose or mouth. Never touch your face until you've washed your hands and don't touch anyone else until your hands are washed," said Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
Experts are also recommending that students clean often-touched surfaces in their rooms, such as doorknobs, keyboards and remote controls. University of Wisconsin-Madison has distributed a flyer called Cleaning Recommendations for Households.
And, of course, everyone should try to get the H1N1 vaccine as soon as it is available.
Although H1N1 is spreading and seems to be infecting children and young adults at a high rate, the illness still tends to be mild with a speedy recovery.
"We all recognize that a pandemic has been declared and many of the horses are already out of the barn," Moore said. "Schools are part of doing the best we can to prevent or at least delay each person from getting sick. If we make it hard for the virus we can at least buy some time to make the vaccine available to more people."
Visit the American College Health Association for more on pandemic preparedness.