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Moderate flu outbreak seen among Stanford students this year

So far, this year's outbreak of influenza among Stanford students is best described as moderate, according to Ira Friedman, director of Vaden Health Center. It's impossible to prove a direct causation, but a 77 percent increase in student vaccinations may have helped.

Courtesy of Vaden Health Center Ira Friedman portrait

Ira Friedman

The bad news about the flu is that it is, of course, miserable: body aches, a fever greater than 100 degrees, chills, a cough and a sore throat. There's nothing fun about the symptoms or about the three to four days most sufferers spend bed-ridden.

The good news, however, is that so far this year's flu outbreak among Stanford students is best described as moderate, as opposed to what much of the rest of the nation has endured.

At the end of January, 45 Stanford students had been diagnosed with influenza. Another 86 had been diagnosed with less severe, but equally miserable, viral respiratory illness, according to Ira Friedman, director of the Vaden Health Center and associate vice provost for student affairs.

Both numbers are higher than the same period last year, when 11 students had been diagnosed with flu and another 45 with a viral illness. But they are much lower than previous flu outbreaks on campus, especially during the 2009-10 H1N1 pandemic.

"Our numbers suggest an elevated level of flu this year, but certainly nothing close to an epidemic level among the students and not nearly as high as the rest of the country," he said.

Friedman said that about 2 percent of Stanford students who visit the Vaden Health Center are diagnosed with the actual flu. That is far less than the 6 percent rate among Californians in general, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By comparison, about 9 percent of visits to Vaden during the H1N1 pandemic resulted in a flu diagnosis.

Flu is always a source of great concern at Stanford and other highly residential campuses. Isolating ill students is often challenging in residences. Even when isolation is possible, motivated students often opt to attend classes although they are sick. In addition, college students sometimes fail to get adequate sleep or eat the healthy meals they enjoyed at home, making them more susceptible to illness.

This year, Friedman said Stanford placed a heavy emphasis on vaccinating as many faculty, staff and students as possible. The vaccines were administered for free at multiple clinics throughout campus. As a result, more than 7,200 shots were administered. Friedman estimates that about 26 percent of undergraduates were vaccinated, which is an increase of 77 percent from last year.

"Way before we got a clue that this was going to be a big influenza year, we started to plan for more aggressive flu vaccines," he said. Friedman said Vaden health care providers collaborated with the university's Occupational Health Center and the Flu Crew, a group of medical students who volunteer to administer shots, to increase the number of vaccination clinics.

"If you can get 26 percent of any population vaccinated, that's great," Friedman said, adding, "And that number doesn't even include the students who might have gotten a vaccination elsewhere."

Friedman said there is no way to assess whether the higher-than-usual vaccination rate diminished the flu outbreak on campus. But what is clear, according to the CDC, is that the flu vaccination has been found to be about 60 to 65 percent effective at preventing illness.