Heard any sneezing around campus recently? You should probably wash your hands. This year’s strain of H3N2 is particularly virulent and has hit Boston hard, though MIT has remained relatively unscathed by the illness.
Boston has seen over 950 confirmed cases of the flu so far this season since Oct. 1, up from last year’s total of just 70. Of the 950 confirmed cases of the flu, 25 percent were severe enough to require hospitalization. MIT, on the other hand, has had a “relatively light season” compared to past years, said Dr. Howard Heller, M.D., MIT Medical’s chief of medicine and infectious disease specialist.
“We were prepared,” assured Heller, citing the record 13,000 flu vaccinations MIT gave out this year (this includes their facility in Lexington). According to Debbie Friscino, MIT Medical’s director of operations, this number is up from last year’s 12,000.
“We recognize that the flu vaccine doesn’t work 100 percent,” said Heller, “but every case we can prevent translates into another few people who won’t catch the flu from that person.”
When asked if Student Support Services had seen more cases of the flu this year than in the past, head of S3, Dean David Randall, said “No, not yet.”
“Reports of the flu spreading came after the semester ended,” Randall wrote in an email to The Tech. “We typically don’t see that many students with the flu during IAP because there is less academic stress. We are prepared for whatever comes our way in the spring, though, and have a solid process in place that we developed in preparation for H1N1 a couple of years ago.”
Another indication the flu has not hit campus hard is a lack of hospitalizations. Heller confirmed no one at MIT had been hospitalized because of the flu or from any complications from the flu. There were hospitalizations due to pneumonia, which can sometimes branch from the flu, he explained, but the pneumonia cases from this year were not flu-related.
The flu in Boston and at MIT
Zero hospitalizations at MIT is a stark contrast to Boston’s hospitals, which have seen an influx of influenza patients. The flu accounted for five percent of all hospital visits this month, as opposed to the usual one percent during non-influenza season. Eight people (seven seniors and one child under age six) have died from flu-related illnesses this season.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino declared a public health emergency on Jan. 9 in response to the spread of influenza in the city. In response, a number of free flu vaccination clinics were offered, and over 7000 people have been vaccinated since.
The worst of the outbreak may be behind us. The flu season in Boston ranges from October through March, though the peak of the illness changes from year-to-year.
“It usually peaks in January and February,” Heller said, but “this year it peaked a lot earlier.”
He attributes the lack of flu cases at MIT to the timing of winter break. “This year, the flu started peaking in Boston a few weeks ago while students were away on winter break,” he explained. This might have been a good thing, he said, since students were not around to catch the illness as it spread across town. By the time IAP started and most students returned to campus, the flu in Boston had declined.
“Prevention is the best thing we can do to minimize the impact of the flu at MIT,” Heller said. Planning for the flu season begins in the summer, when supplies are ordered for the coming winter. Friscino coordinated the organization of the immunization effort, which involves ordering the number of necessary vaccinations from the pharmacy, making sure there are enough syringes, needles, and bandages on hand, and hiring nursing staff to assist with the flu clinics run in the student center, among other tasks.
The flu clinics, where free vaccines are offered to the MIT community, are generally very popular. “We administer thousands of doses in a day,” Heller said.
It’s still not too late to get a flu shot. MIT community members who have not yet been vaccinated can call 617-253-4865 in Cambridge or 781-981-7080 in Lexington to schedule an appointment for a free flu shot. For more information about the flu, tips on prevention and more, check MIT Flu Central at http://medweb.mit.edu/about/news/flu/index.html.