Fresh Surge of Flu Cases and Vaccine Shortages Raise Anxiety on Campuses

October 28, 2009

College campuses experienced a surge in flu cases last week just as vaccine shortages and delays were forcing many to postpone scheduled shot clinics, the American College Health Association reported on Wednesday.

Some of the increases in what the association called "influenza-like illnesses"—widely thought to be the H1N1, popularly called swine flu—occurred in regions that had seemed to be recovering from severe outbreaks earlier this fall. The unexpected rebounds in the Southeast, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast have some health experts worried that the holiday season might bring some colleges a double dose of illness.

"It's possible we could see an overlap of seasonal flu right on top of H1N1," said James C. Turner, president of the college-health association.

Nearly all of the cases reported so far are thought to be caused by the H1N1 virus because seasonal flu is not expected to hit until late December or early January, Dr. Turner said.

A total of 8,861 new flu cases were reported, with 20 hospitalizations and no deaths, during the week that ended on October 23. The 270 reporting campuses have more than 3.1 million students. New cases were reported on 97 percent of the campuses, up from 95 percent the previous week. The nationwide attack rate on campuses was 28 cases per 10,000 students, 34 percent higher than the previous week.

Dr. Turner, who also directs the University of Virginia's Department of Student Health, said that because of a nationwide shortage of flu vaccines, his clinics have been able to offer only seasonal-flu shots so far. "Students are disappointed, and everyone's anxious to get the H1N1 vaccines," he said. The small batches that have been distributed to campuses this fall are mostly going to health-care workers.

So far, about 56,000 suspected swine-flu cases have been reported to the college-health association since reporting began, in late August. The participating colleges have reported 98 hospitalizations and no deaths.

"This is different from seasonal flu, which is bad for two or three weeks and then falls off," Dr. Turner said. Many campuses are getting second waves of flu as people move between the campuses and surrounding communities. "We're hearing of faculty and staff who are contracting the flu from their kids, and students who travel home and bring it back."