Every year the leaves change colour and begin to drop — much like the temperature — signaling the beginning of a new season. Flu season, that is.
While the regular influenza virus is to be expected; this year, there’s a new strain in town.
We first saw the emergence of the H1N1 flu virus, also know as human swine, in April. It is a term that has been used frequently over the last few months to describe a virus that originated from pigs, was transferred to humans and has since become a pandemic.
According to the World Health Organization, “A pandemic is a worldwide epidemic of a disease. An influenza pandemic may occur when a new influenza virus appears against which the human population has no immunity.”
“This is a pandemic strain,” explained James Finstad of Alberta Health Services. “H1N1 preparations are the top priority for Alberta Health Services at this point in time.”
Because of the large numbers of people in relatively close vicinity, campuses can create a hospitable environment for viruses, according to Finstad.
“H1N1, like any influenza virus, can be spread when people are in close contact. We certainly know in the fall and in the winter when people are spending more time together in close, enclosed spaces that there is more possibility for viruses to spread,” he explained.
As the province prepares to deal with this new strain, university campuses such as Mount Royal are making preparations as well. “The first thing you want to make sure of is that it doesn’t come on campus,” said Mount Royal’s public health response team leader, Jane O’Connor.
“If it does come on campus you want to prevent it from spreading … and the third thing is to start considering what your possibilities are if it gets more severe than that.”
At this point, efforts are being focused on prevention, explained O’Connor, adding that is the reason for all the hand sanitizers that have been placed around the campus. “Essentially, right now, we’re focusing on prevention so the first priority is to make sure that the virus doesn’t hit campus so that’s all about self-care, personal health, taking care of yourself.”
While those practices are being encouraged, there are still some worries around the campus, explained Diana Fletcher, biology instructor at Mount Royal.
“I know some people are a little concerned,” she said. “I bought a bottle of hand sanitizer thinking that I would use it after being around anyone who seemed sick. But I am hopeful that I have already been exposed and didn’t get sick so hopefully I won’t get sick.”
Fletcher’s husband Kent contracted H1N1 over the summer and while he was not hospitalized, she said it was a scary time in her household.
Not only was she worried about her husband’s health, but the possibility of someone else in her home contracting the virus. Despite her fears, neither Fletcher nor anyone else in her home caught H1N1.
“I tend to think that our immune systems should be able to fend this off if we eat good food and get some extra sleep. For the most part, I don’t tend to have a lot of physical contact with students but I won’t stop shaking hands and I won’t let fear of H1N1 stop me from being friendly,” she explained.
If H1N1 does make its way on to the campus, Fletcher believes attendance numbers may fall quickly.
“I think if someone gets sick from H1N1 then we will probably have a lot of people staying home from classes. Students and staff will not want to catch H1N1 so if a few people get sick then attendance may drop off a lot.”
This is where the second part of Mount Royal’s H1N1 plan comes into play, according to O’Connor. The response team plans to evaluate the situation through monitoring attendance levels.
“We’re doing some levels of surveillance so we’ll be working with departments to determine the rate of employee absenteeism, the rate of student absenteeism and faculty absenteeism and then asking them to develop plans,” said O’Connor. If levels of attendance are down significantly, the various departments of the school will evaluate whether they can still function or not.
In addition to leading the response team, O’Connor is also the executive assistant to MRU President Dave Marshall, which she explained as the reason behind her role with the response team.
“We felt there was a strong need for people at the senior, executive level to be in touch with what’s going on … so that’s why they chose me to be the team lead because I’ve got access to the senior executives,” she explained.
According to O’Connor, there are people from all over the campus that are prepared to deal with H1N1, from student residence staff to the IT department. “If it breaks, we’re ready.”
However, in the occasion that the virus does hit campus, the decision to shut down the school will not lie with Mount Royal.
“The decision will be out of our hands. At some point, if it gets really severe it will be Alberta Health Services that makes the call to cancel classes or shut down the institution, but we’ll be monitoring it along the way,” said O’Connor.
From O’Connor’s perspective, what’s important to keep in mind is that fear isn’t necessary at this point. “Right now in Alberta, we’re sort of at a steady state — cases aren’t going up much, maybe one or two. Our death rate is still very low; it’s only eight since this whole thing started, which is less than seasonal flu if you put it into perspective.
“What we’re trying to do is keep the panic level down. There’s nothing to panic about at this point, even if you get sick it’s mild for most cases.”
The vaccine for the regular seasonal influenza will be available in mid-October and a separate H1N1 vaccine will become available sometime in November, explained O’Connor. She added that it’s likely that Alberta Health Services will be setting up their own clinics, but nothing has been solidified.
“I think there will be illness in Calgary, I think there will be people that are sick. From my perspective, I don’t see it as any more serious than the seasonal flu,” she said. “I think we’re going to come through it OK.”