Public schools and colleges are seeing an early and robust flu season thanks to the H1N1 virus, although some are scratching their heads as to why it’s not as widespread as health officials predicted it would be.
And so far, it appears to be far less deadly than its well-known cousin, the seasonal flu that comes every fall and winter and kills tens of thousands of people in America every year.
“There’s no doubt the flu has gotten off to a fast and early start,” said Tom Skinner, spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It is very unusual to see the amount of cases we’re seeing this time of year. It’s a long season and some campuses are being hit hard.”
Dozens of public schools across the country have reported both confirmed and suspected cases of H1N1. A Houston-area charter school with 200 students closed Wednesday to "disinfect" after a student tested positive for the virus. A high school in Kentucky canceled its Friday night football game on Wednesday after a player was confirmed to have the virus and several other players exhibited flu-like symptoms.
Meanwhile, colleges and universities across the country are reporting thousands of suspected swine flu cases.
On Tuesday, the Cornell Daily Sun — the student newspaper of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. — reported that the college's health department had diagnosed 623 cases and 1 death from suspected H1N1. The Ivy League university plans to remain open in spite of widespread concern on campus.
Two weeks ago, a 22-year-old student from the University of Nebraska-Omaha died from suspected H1N1 just before starting classes there.
Still, only 600 Americans have died from the new H1N1 virus, a low number when compared to the 30,000 to 40,000 people who die annually from seasonal flu. Skinner said that could be due to whom H1N1 is targeting.
The very young, very old and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk of contracting and dying from the seasonal flu. But a different group is most susceptible to the H1N1 virus.
“H1n1 is hitting a larger population of teenagers and young adults, people with robust immune systems, so we might not see the number of hospitalizations and deaths that we see with the seasonal flu,” Skinner said. “That’s kind of how things are shaping up early on, but it’s still too early to draw any definitive conclusions on how it will ultimately affect people.”
Colleges See Early Flu Outbreak
The American College Health Association reported that as of this past Monday, 83 percent of the 253 colleges and universities that the organization tracks reported influenza-like illnesses, up from 72 percent the week before. The organization tracked a total of 6,432 cases and 16 hospitalizations over the past week, according to its Web site.
The nationwide attack rate last week was 21.5 cases per 10,000 college students, 20 percent higher than week before. The most cases were reported in the Northwest, with considerable activity also occurring in the Southeast, according to the college health association.
Skinner said the flu’s unpredictability is one reason why H1N1 is hitting some regions harder than others.
“There’s no rhyme or reason as to how it spreads and when it hits a particular region,” he said. “Last week, we, in Georgia, saw a lot of activity at colleges with some areas being hit harder than others.”
Although some regions have yet to see upswing in flu cases, Skinner warned people not to become complacent.
“Even if an area is not being hit hard now, our message continues to be that we want to make sure that those in high-risk groups get vaccinated,” he said.