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H1N1 Not a Top Concern for Colleges, Universities

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Macro view of isolated H1N1 swine flu virus.iStock

It was almost a year ago when the H1N1 virus sent school officials scrambling to keep students safe from the new flu strain that had invaded college and university campuses across the country — from Washington State University, where officials saw more than 2,000 cases, to the University of Virginia, where hundreds of cases cropped up.

But nearly 12 months later, officials are looking at a much different landscape.

“For one thing, we’re not expecting H1N1 to surge this year,” Dr. Jim Turner, the executive director of student health at the University of Virginia, told FoxNews.com. “Since students returned from winter break in January – there has been very little activity.”

Turner said there were two major waves of H1N1 last year, with the first one peaking in March and April of 2009.

“By the time it got to college campuses in May, classes were leaving, so it never really took hold.”

But the 2009 fall semester was a completely different story. Turner said it was in August when doctors saw the second wave of the virus erupt.

“We have 21,000 students on campus and we had a total of 1,004 cases last year, which is four to five times what we usually see. So it was big time flu and most of it was H1N1 cases,” he said.

During that second wave, the University of Nebraska at Omaha was also hit hard. A student, who had contracted H1N1, died in August 2009. However, when FoxNews.com contacted university officials, they said the student had other serious medical conditions prior to coming down with H1N1 — specifically severe muscular dystrophy.

In a statement issued by the university, officials said they continue to monitor the H1N1 situation as they prepare for the 2010 fall semester.

“The safety and health of our 15,000 students is of our utmost concern as a new school year is about to begin. UNO has a stellar student health office that works closely with local health officials as needed."

In calls to other colleges and universities around the country, the sentiment is much the same.

“The college is continuing to be cautious,” Caroline J. Hanna, director of media relations at
Amherst College in Massachusetts told FoxNews.com. “I don’t think we have changed much since the last wave went through. We have hand sanitizers in the dorms and a plan for kids who fall ill.”

Meredith Bonham, executive assistant to the president at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., said they have the same plan in place that they used last year during the outbreak there that led to several hundred students becoming sick.

“We learned a lot last year,” Bonham said. “We learned that quarantining students with the flu wasn’t practical because of how fast it spread. Our focus now this year would be getting treatment to the students as soon as possible, including flu kits and food deliveries coordinated through the resident advisors.”

At Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where an estimated 1,700 students contracted H1N1 during the 2009 – 2010 school year, with one student dying from complications of the virus, officials there said they are treating this year like they would any other year.

“We’re emphasizing good hygiene practices and other preventative measures,” Heather Stone, public health communications specialist at Cornell University, said. “A key preventative measure is always flu vaccinations, so we’ll be offering flu vaccines to all of our students, staff and faculty. We’ll offer those at campus clinics as soon as they become available this season.”

Turner, the immediate past president of the American College Health Association, who was on the frontlines throughout the pandemic, said that’s exactly what schools should be doing.

“Colleges and universities need to be gearing up to administer the seasonal flu vaccine,” he said. “For the first time ever, the CDC is recommending the vaccine for everyone, including college students. They have never been included in the seasonal vaccine, so that’s exciting. It gives us an even greater motivation and impetus to make sure college kids get the flu vaccine.”

In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted for “universal” flu vaccination in the U.S., which means that everyone 6 months and older should get the flu vaccine each year starting with the 2010 – 2011 influenza season. This year’s vaccine covers the 2009 H1N1, as well as influenza A H3N2 and influenza B.

On the University of Virginia campus, a flu vaccine clinic is already scheduled for early November.

At least 18,449 people have died worldwide since the H1N1 outbreak began in April 2009. WHO said last week that the true figure is likely to be higher, but the organization's flu chief, Keiji Fukuda, said a final number won't be known for some months.

Nevertheless, health officials around the world should prepare for a new type of seasonal flu to appear in the near future that will combine elements of the pandemic A (H1N1) strain, and older A (H3N2) strain and several lesser strains, said Professor Angus Nicoll, flu program coordinator at the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.

It's estimated, on average, approximately 5 to 20 percent of Americans get the flu each year, with more than 200,000 requiring hospitalization for flu-related complications, according to the CDC. About 36,000 people die.

In most cases, when a patient is diagnosed with the flu, doctors usually prescribe an antiviral drug such as Tamiflu or Relenza, which can be used for the prevention and treatment of flu viruses. For more information on medications and antivirals, go to the government flu website.

FoxNews.com’s Colleen Cappon and Jessica Ryen Doyle contributed to this report.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.