One of the busiest spots at the University of Dallas the last two weeks is also one of the smallest: the Student Health Clinic in upstairs Haggar.
It’s here that students have flocked since the outbreak of what’s being called the worst flu outbreak to hit UD in memory.
Dr. Laurette Dekat emphasized the importance of preventative measures, particularly vaccination, in controlling the outbreak.
Dekat stressed the benefits of vaccination even as concern about vaccines seems to be growing nationally — concerns that doctors and scientists say are largely based in myth.
Few students who were vaccinated have come down with the flu, according to the university’s clinicians. And only a fraction of students used the university’s clinic to get the flu vaccine, raising questions as to whether many simply went unvaccinated.
“On the whole, it’s not a bad flu season,” Dr. Lora Rodriguez said. “It just happens to have been able to come on campus in a population that’s not vaccinated. That’s why we’re having the outbreak.”
Dekat explained that this year’s vaccine is the first intradermal quadrivalent flu vaccine, meaning that it protects against four different strains and is administered to the dendritic cells just beneath the skin, which allows the immune system to immediately recognize its presence.
Protection against the influenza A strain at fault for UD’s outbreak, H3N2, is included in this year’s vaccine.
The vaccine also protects against influenza B, which often causes a secondary outbreak in communities that have experienced an influenza A outbreak. Vaccinated students would therefore be protected not only from the currently predominant illness, but also a long-term risk.
“Most of the kids who come in with the flu shot do not come in with the flu,” Rodriguez said.
So far, only two of the clinic’s confirmed flu patients had been vaccinated. According to Rodriguez, both these cases were relatively mild and short-lived.
Both doctors maintained that vaccination continues to be an important step toward personal protection in light of this year’s relatively delayed spike in flu cases.
While U.S. cases had already peaked by February in the past two years, they are still on the rise today.
All students who have come to the clinic for unrelated issues have been recommended the vaccine if they are capable of receiving it and have not already done so.
In addition to aiding individual experiences of the illness, the vaccination develops the potential for herd immunity. This occurs when enough members of the community are vaccinated against the disease that those who cannot receive the vaccine due to other health concerns, such as compromised immune systems, are protected from coming into contact with a person carrying the virus.
“The vaccine is not a hundred percent effective in that not everybody makes antibodies to the one shot,” Rodriguez said. “So there will be some people that wouldn’t have made antibodies at all.”
“That’s what people don’t realize,” Dekat said. “Vaccine isn’t just for the individual, it’s for the whole community.”
This flu season has seen improved vaccination rates from last year.
According to Dekat, 180 students had been vaccinated at the clinic by the end of November, up from 136 in 2015. Sixteen had been vaccinated between the end of November 2016 and Feb. 3, 2017, but Rodriguez said that around five vaccines were administered per day in the beginning of the outbreak.
These numbers do not include students and faculty who were vaccinated in other clinics.
“I can’t tell you the number of people who come in and say, ‘Well, maybe I did [get vaccinated], I definitely got a lot in the summer,” Rodriguez said. “If you got it before September, it was not this year’s flu vaccine.”
“In the 15 years I’ve been here, I have never seen [an outbreak] this bad,” Dekat said. “I’d say probably about half as many people [got] sick in the past.”
Last flu season, only two UD students were treated at the clinic for the flu. H1N1 was the dominant 2015-2016 strain, which produced much milder symptoms.
This year’s strain is more serious, and has caused all UD’s confirmed cases with the exception of one influenza B case in January.
However, the university’s outbreak isn’t just a matter of vaccination. It also has a lot to do with the way UD students are.
“You guys have so much fun and were so communal,” Rodriguez said. “One of the kids said, ‘yeah, it’s cause we’re such a communal group of people. You guys are sharing and including everybody, and you’re giving everybody hugs and breathing all over each other, and you’re sharing drinks and you’re sharing food at multiple events in a row.”
And, it appears, germs.
Students can get their flu shots in the clinic on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.