Flu season & the savvy student

Overwhelmed lecture halls, communal living spaces and high amounts of social activity make university campuses a perfect breeding ground for the seasonal flu virus.

Despite the increased exposure associated with student life, the United States Centre for Disease Control (CDC) estimated only about 13 per cent of post-secondary students are electing to get their vaccine every year.

Troy Day, an evolutionary biology professor at Queen’s specializing in mathematical modeling of disease and virology, said students should be getting their vaccines for two different reasons. Not only does the shot provide potential benefits to their own health, but it also benefits the health of the community as a whole. “Even if I am not terribly vulnerable to adverse effects, if I can weather it out and I’m not worried about dying, by being infected I help spread the virus in the community and there are people in the community that are more susceptible, of different age groups and different health groups,” Day said. Many Queen’s students volunteer their time in hospitals, schools or elsewhere in the community where they make contact with groups who have an increased risk of complications from the flu virus, he added.

“Students are a group of people who have a very high level of social contact in the community, so they’re a group that tends to contribute a lot to the spread of disease,” he said. “In that sense I would say they’re an important group to be vaccinated, even if they aren’t going to be hit as hard by the flu as someone that is 95.” Day also dispelled the misconception that higher vaccination rates could transform the flu into a more virulent and infectious pathogen.

“In the case of flu, by just looking at how it tends to evolve from season-to-season, it’s what we would call antigenic evolution,” he said.

“It’s the evolution of the virus to be less recognizable by the body, rather than increased replication and faster replication rates, which is what would lead to higher mortality.” On the contrary, Kingston-based naturopathic doctor Sonya Nobbe said students should consider the effectiveness of the vaccine and the health of their own immune system when deciding whether or not to be vaccinated.

“Improving your own immune systems capacity to fight these things is far more effective [than the vaccine],” Nobbe said. “For example, according to a recent report from Statistics Canada, only about 35 per cent of Canadians are getting adequate levels of vitamin D and we know that if your vitamin D levels are up and running, you’re far more likely to respond better to the flu, you’re far more likely to prevent complications from a cold or flu and it could possibly prevent you from even getting it in the first place.” Nobbe also pointed out that recent estimates put the flu vaccine at about 60-70 per cent efficacy, so it’s by no means a guarantee. Though she doesn’t definitively advise against getting the vaccine, she warns against the false sense of security that vaccination may be providing.

“High stress is a risk factor to being more susceptible to the cold or flu or having a complication related to the cold or flu, so it should shift the risk-balance analysis for you,” she said.

“If you know you’ll be under a lot of stress for long period of time and you’re concerned about being shut down, maybe you want to get vaccinated, as long as you realize it still might not protect you — there still may be some side effects and you shouldn’t use it as a false sense of security.”

The CDC reports that the flu hits within two days of Feb. 17 almost every year — right in the midst of reading week this year at Queen’s. With the stress of midterms and term papers, combined with high levels of interaction on campus, many students are likely to be spending the week at home in bed.

Rates of flu vaccination among college students suggest that students may perceive the vaccine as unimportant, thinking they can handle the symptoms of the virus without suffering any serious health risks.

But considering the amount of interaction between students and higher-risk groups in the Kingston community, the decision to forego the vaccine may be short-sighted.

While the flu vaccine doesn’t guarantee students’ immunity to the virus, their vaccination plays a critical role in the overall health of the community.

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