Flu vaccinations widely available on campus

After last year's influenza pandemic put flu vaccines in the spotlight for months on end, health experts believe this year's flu season should be more routine, with vaccines widely available for the University community.

Throughout the month of October, the University and Medical Center will offer a comprehensive plan to immunize students, faculty and staff members. (See here for a full schedule of vaccination clinics, and click here for a map of clinic locations.)

There will be more than 20 opportunities for free vaccination on campus or in the hospital, along with regular availability at the Student Care Center and Occupational Medicine clinic. University experts said all adults should consider getting flu shots for themselves and their children, and health care workers are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated.

"A regular flu season doesn't mean that it's easy or that people don't get sick," said Stephen Weber, chief healthcare epidemiologist for the Medical Center. "We have to remember that while flu is a very common illness, folks who are not vaccinated are at an increased risk."

Obtaining protection from this year's flu promises to be a far simpler process than in 2009. Unlike last year, a single "all-in-one" injection is all that's required to vaccinate against three different forms of the virus, including last year's H1N1 strain. Production of the vaccines began early enough to create sufficient supply this year, eliminating the shortages faced in some areas last fall.

Instead, the main obstacles to getting vaccinations may be misinformation and apathy. Some think last fall's flu shot will still protect them against this year's virus (it doesn't). Others believe that the flu vaccine can give you the flu (it won't). For answers to common questions about flu vaccines, see here.

Battling misconceptions about flu is the goal of peer health educators on campus, such as fourth-year Michelle Schmitz and third-year Erica Ting, who have worked to create materials to promote vaccination and dispel myths.

"If you take five to 10 minutes to wait in line for a flu shot now, you won't have to worry about it in future, and be miserable while reading a 200-page assignment," Ting said. "It won't take time from your life later if you do it now."

For hospital faculty and staff, the need for vaccination goes beyond individual safety. Vaccination of workers is important to protect against inadvertent transmission to patients, and vaccinating a health care worker's family can prevent missed workdays due to taking care of sick children.

To address last year's concerns about H1N1-related staff shortages, chief of pediatric infectious diseases Kenneth Alexander and nurse practitioner Jennifer Burns established a successful Family Flu Clinic that was commended by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The program will return this year with 17 vaccination clinics on campus and in Naperville, Ill. and Merrillville, Ind. for family members of employees.

"We determined that one of the best ways of reducing absenteeism among parents is to immunize their children," Alexander said. "When we opened the family clinic up to the whole university, we found that there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the idea."

But perhaps the most convincing argument, one that applies equally in the classroom, dorm room, clinic or the laboratory, is appealing to community responsibility. The more campus community members who get immunized, the less likely the virus is to gain a foothold on campus and cause serious illness in vulnerable patients - a scientific concept known as "herd immunity."

"It's a serious illness to some people more than others, so building immunity within the space where we're working and living is really important," said Meredith Haggerty, interim director of health education and promotion at the Student Care Center.

If that argument fails, getting vaccinated has another clear appeal for University students.

"Being out with the flu for 10 days can't help your GPA," Alexander said.