The world became familiar with what initially was commonly known as swine flu at the end of last year's traditional seasonal flu season. Now also known as H1N1 flu or Novel H1N1 Influenza, the disease is sweeping through many parts of the world and remains a public health threat in the United States. The return of students to schools across the nation has put health officials on alert as they prepare to deal once again with the illness. Robert D. Palinkas, M.D., is the director of the McKinley Health Center at the University of Illinois. The health center is bracing for a possible surge in H1N1 flu cases this fall.
What are you expecting in terms of seasonal flu and swine flu (H1N1) with the return of tens of thousands of students to the Urbana campus?
Predicting flu seasons is much like predicting the path of hurricanes. It is highly uncertain and we are often forced to make projections based on limited available information. That being said, most experts believe that we will be in for a very difficult flu season this fall.
Most years, we can expect to have a flu season that peaks some time around February of each winter. That's why we often call that version of influenza "seasonal flu."
Something is different this year. We are experiencing an outbreak of a viral infection in the influenza family that has the name "Novel H1N1 influenza." This influenza strain was first found at the end of last year's flu season and surprised everybody by sticking around through the summer, which is highly unusual. Additionally, the virus also moved to the southern hemisphere and has been infecting thousands of people in other countries during their winter period.
Because of the widespread infections, the World Health Organization has declared this to be a pandemic.
We expect that when Illinois students come back from all points of the globe, some of them will bring the Novel H1N1 virus to this campus and we'll experience our own problems during the early part of the fall semester.
What is McKinley Health Center doing to prepare?
McKinley Health Center and many other interested parties on campus have been closely following the events over the summer. The experience of countries in South America and other parts of the southern hemisphere has been quite enlightening, confirming our suspicion that this is a virus that preferentially spreads among young people, including college-age people, and is able to persist through summer months.
Besides monitoring, McKinley Health Center has been putting together a very detailed plan that changes how patients will be directed once they get into the building. We will go into a process called "compartmentalization," which will screen individuals at the door for evidence of symptoms of influenza-like illness. Those individuals who appear to have an influenza-like illness will be directed to an ILI clinic (Influenza-Like Illness), so that they will not encounter other people seeking care at McKinley Health Center. This reduces exposure of employees at the center and other students who are there for things other than influenza-like illness.
In addition, we have been meeting, talking and coordinating plans with other critical units on campus, including housing, various crisis-management units, the academic leadership and human resources, because the virus likely will have an impact in many different areas besides McKinley Health Center.
Is there anything members of the campus community can do to help?
Anyone interested in Novel H1N1 influenza should check McKinley's Web site and, of course, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. Most important of all, it is critical that people develop a plan for what they would do in case they are exposed or come down with the Novel H1N1 influenza.
For people who are hoping to reduce their chance of exposure, they should avoid crowded areas and sharing beverages and food with other individuals. Everyone should cover their mouths when they cough so that the air is not contaminated with droplet particles containing the virus. People should wash their hands frequently, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if they feel that they have come in contact with a potentially contaminated surface. In general, people should keep their hands away from their face. General positive health measures such as adequate rest and a balanced diet are important, too.