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Last week, an MIT student did something that three decades of snowstorms haven’t been able to do: He shut down Harvard.

A student who probably got the swine flu while abroad in Mexico spread the disease to a travel companion and a friend, who from there most likely shared the disease with colleagues at Harvard Dental School.

After a cluster of probable swine flu infections was found at the Harvard Dental School on Friday, May 1, Boston authorities and Harvard closed the school from Friday until Wednesday, May 6. Harvard University’s main campus in Cambridge remains open.

Harvard — even parts of Harvard — rarely close. The university has not had a snow day since 1978. The dental school’s clinic is also closed and medical students are barred from seeing patients until Thursday.

All Harvard Medical School on-campus student activities and classes were also cancelled from Friday through yesterday. That includes some Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology classes taught at MIT, so some MIT HST students were affected.

Why cancel classes?

Influenza can cause dangerous complications in the very young or elderly and in people with asthma or pneumonia. The 2008–2009 flu vaccine, given to many at-risk people, probably does not protect against H1N1 swine flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Those vulnerable people could be found at a hospital, which may explain why Harvard is keeping possibly-infected medical students away from patients.

No outbreak at MIT

MIT braced to treat the possible swine flu outbreak as it would a tough flu season. Posters went up across campus advertising basic messages: practice good hygiene and avoid sick people. (And if you’re sick, avoid healthy people.) MIT Medical has planned to handle an influx of patients and has stocked anti-flu drugs.

No cases of swine flu have been confirmed at MIT, but there are two probable cases.

The first is an MIT student who felt ill after returning to Mexico and came to Medical on Thursday, April 23. The student came in before swine flu was an international concern, and he was not tested for the flu. He has since recovered, and testing can no longer confirm now whether he had swine flu, said Howard M. Heller, director of internal medicine at MIT Medical.

The Boston Herald was told by Boston’s infectious disease bureau that “the illness was traced back to a female third-year dental student believed to have contracted the illness from a friend who doesn’t attend the school but recently came back from Mexico,” a situation that exactly matches the MIT student.

The MIT student was linked by a chain of infections to the probable Harvard Dental infections, said Louise Rice, director of public health and nursing at the Cambridge Public Health Department.

The second probable case of swine flu at MIT is a former spouse of an MIT employee, student MedLinks were told on Friday night. The person lives off campus and has only one connection to MIT: they receive treatment at MIT Medical. The person tested positive for Influenza A, but results of a test for H1N1 were not yet available.

Flu spreads slowly

The flu has so far killed just one person among 279 cases reported in the United States, according to CDC statistics reported yesterday morning. People who catch the swine flu usually recover, much like people who catch seasonal influenza.

In Mexico last week, more than one hundred deaths were attributed to the flu, prompting health officials across the globe to prepare for the worst. In the U.S., some schools and public parks were closed to try to prevent spread of the disease, which has slowly spread across the country. The World Health Organization said that a global pandemic of the virus was imminent, and its pandemic level remained at 5, the second-highest level, over the weekend.

In the U.S., most people who get the flu feel bad for a few days then recover. In Massachusetts, 34 cases of swine flu were confirmed as of yesterday, 23 of those in Middlesex County. Three of those 23 people had been hospitalized but were discharged as of yesterday, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Cambridge has paid close attention to patients entering local hospitals, but there were no confirmed cases of swine flu in the city as of yesterday afternoon, Rice said before the DPH’s Monday-night confirmation of 28 more cases.

The surge in confirmations on Monday can be attributed to the state performing tests locally, at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute. Earlier tests were performed by the CDC in Atlanta, where Massachusetts samples competed with many others for priority in the lab.

Even as swine flu furor has seemed to subside, Boston has seen aggressive responses to the swine flu.

Graduating seniors at Northeastern University’s commencement were asked not to shake hands with the official handing out diplomas, the Boston Globe reported. Separately, Boston University closed its orthodontic clinic until Friday after a resident at its Goldman School of Dental Medicine was diagnosed with a probable case of swine flu, the Globe reported.

At MIT, a much-anticipated visit by the Dalai Lama to Kresge Auditorium last Thursday went on as scheduled, although ticketholders were asked not to come if they felt sick.

An Institute-wide “Spring Break” advertised on Friday was canceled on Saturday evening by Kirk D. Kolenbrander, Vice President for Institute Affairs and Secretary of the Corporation, who sent out both the invitation and the cancellation.

Uncertainty about the state of flu containment on campus made the decision prudent, Kolenbrander said. And it had to be made far in advance, he said. “It’s not like we can decide on Tuesday not to do it on Wednesday.”

Will the party be rescheduled? Maybe not for the spring, he said. But “maybe we can do something for the community this summer, or in the fall when everyone is back.”