Recent Uptick in Flu Illness Observed

Harvard University Health Services is suggesting that the Harvard community forgo “the traditional handshakes and embraces that accompany graduation ceremonies” in light of a recent uptick in the number of students presenting flu symptoms.

Donna Campbell, a UHS nurse practitioner and infection control surveillance officer, said that while there have been no recently-confirmed H1N1—“swine flu”—cases at Harvard, “you make a presumptive diagnosis based on symptoms.”

She said she could not give a precise number for the increase in sickness this past week, noting that diagnoses for illnesses can change. But she also said that UHS is not testing patients for the H1N1 strain of the flu unless they present with complications or are considered at high-risk, in accordance with recommendations from the Mass. Public Health Commission.

A May 22 update on H1N1 testing guidelines issued by the Mass. Department of Public Health suggested that “individuals with mild illness should be advised to stay at home.”

The University’s announcement comes weeks after several now-confirmed cases of H1N1 occurred at Harvard School of Dental Medicine, which prompted University and Boston health authorities to temporarily suspend classes at Harvard’s Longwood medical campus and close the dental school’s treatment clinic. High absenteeism and a rash of cases around Boston in recent weeks has also forced the closing of several public and private schools.

“Traditionally we don’t see this much influenza-like illness this late in the year,” Campbell said, noting that the traditional flu season runs from roughly October through April.

H1N1 presents symptoms similar to any other influenza virus, including sore throat, fever, cough, and stuffy nose and is usually tempered by rest and fluids. But because the strain is new, people will likely not have immunity, making symptoms more severe. Campbell said that the illness is not “particularly serious” for the young and healthy, and according to the UHS Web site, those at higher risk include young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and adults and children with immunosuppression or certain chronic disorders.

She said that the recent rash of illness was likely caused by increased person-to-person contact during the graduation period and noted that the patients presenting themselves for treatment have mostly been students and not alumni or other visitors.

“Anytime you have any activity going on where people are close, you increase the risk of illness,” Campbell said. “All the seniors are on top of each other with everybody saying goodbye, and there are oodles of social events where people are in close proximity.”

—Staff writer Peter F. Zhu can be reached at pzhu@fas.harvard.edu.