Flu, stomach bug spread across campus


Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

Northwestern University Health Service, located at Searle Hall on Emerson Street.

Shane McKeon, Assistant Campus Editor

A largely ineffective vaccine and sorority recruitment have fueled the flu season on campus, with a separate stomach virus spreading within University housing getting more students sick, said Thomas Reda, medical director of the Northwestern University Health Service.

The biggest factor in this particular flu season, Reda said, has been the flu vaccine’s widely reported shortcomings: It reduces a recipient’s chances of having to see a doctor for the flu by only 23 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In past years, that number has been up to 60 percent.

Nevertheless, Reda said Searle had a “record year” for giving flu shots, with many more students than normal receiving a vaccination. Reda said it is “absolutely” worth getting a flu shot this late in the season.

“If you can take five days off of class,” he said, “and lie in bed and feel like a truck hit you for those five days, don’t get the flu shot.”

Reda said NUHS saw an uptick in the number of students who came to Searle for “influenza and influenza-like illness” the second week of the quarter. For the week of Jan. 5, Searle documented seven such cases. The next week, Searle documented 41 cases.

Reda linked the increase to sorority recruitment, which ended Jan. 13.

Recorded cases dropped the next week — the most recent data available — to 22 cases. Reda said no students have been hospitalized with the flu this year.

Health Service’s numbers, however, almost definitely understate the total number of students who contracted the flu. SESP junior James Keane said he was sick with flu-like symptoms the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Keane never went to Searle for the illness because it was closed Monday for the holiday.

“I did find that frustrating that there was a three-day stretch without that access to medical attention,” he said. “So I never found out for sure if I had the flu, but with the symptoms, it felt like I did.”

Reda also said a stomach virus has spread, especially within Willard Residential College and Allison Hall. He said it’s difficult to measure how many students contracted the bug because many don’t come to Health Service for treatment.

Communication freshman Sofia Kuta, who lives in Allison, caught the stomach bug around Jan. 11 and never went to Searle. She said she called the Health Service’s after-hours hotline, which helped diagnose the illness and how she could treat it.

A week after she recovered, she started feeling flu-like symptoms, despite getting the vaccine earlier in the fall. Kuta didn’t visit Searle after her second illness, either, instead using the hotline again.

“When you have a lot of people living in a close, confined environment, the potential for what happened is there,” executive director of Residential Services Paul Riel said.

After it learned of the virus, Riel’s department spoke to Searle and decided to focus on educating students living in University housing about staying healthy and having housekeeping clean the facilities more times per day.

Associate director of Residential Services Johnathan Winters oversees the department’s housekeeping operation. Winters said custodians focus on “high touch areas,” germy surfaces students touch with their hands regularly. These include faucets, shower knobs and railings. Restrooms are cleaned daily, he said, and railings are cleaned twice a week.

Reda said students should focus on keeping their hands clean, preferring washing with soap and water instead of using hand sanitizer.

He also said students who feel sick should stay home, both to recover and to avoid spreading whatever illness they may have contracted.

Keane said he thinks students should prioritize their health over their academic or social lives.

“Especially in a culture like Northwestern where students push themselves mentally, they’re likely to push themselves physically too in order to maintain their grades, maintain their student group life,” Keane said. “It’s really important that students like me stop and reassess their priorities.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @Shane_McKeon