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Parent Program Update: Influenza information for UW-Madison parents

The following message was sent to 10,000 members of the UW-Madison Parent Program from Sarah Van Orman, M.D., director of UHS.

Dear UW-Madison Parent or Guardian,

As the chief campus health officer, I want to take a few minutes of your time to update you on H1N1 influenza virus, or “swine flu,” on campus this fall and the ways you can assist our efforts.

Because H1N1 is known to be highly contagious among young people, the campus prepared very actively over the summer for the possibility that flu cases would start to rise soon after students arrived back on campus. Before classes began, every student received an email from Chancellor Biddy Martin and one from the Dean of Students and myself, outlining our expectations for this unusual semester and describing the best precautions students could take to safeguard their own health and help limit the spread of disease on campus.

As we had expected, we have begun receiving reports throughout campus that students had come down with influenza symptoms and had gone home to recover or were taking proper self-isolation precautions. We are receiving a large number of calls and visits to the health center regarding possible influenza symptoms. We want students to realize that with H1N1 in the community, flu season starts now, not a few months from now, so it’s time to think about small changes they could make that could cut down their risk and what to do if they should get sick.

We are stressing to all UW students, faculty, and other employees that they are expected to stay home from work and class while they have influenza symptoms, returning only when they have been fever free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications. Students will not be required to bring a medical excuse for brief illness-related absences, and they should not “tough it out” and try to come to class when they’re sick.

It’s important that we make our best effort to limit the spread of disease as much as possible. The vast majority of people have made a full recovery from the

H1N1 virus without medical treatment, but even a mild case of flu makes people feel weak, achy, and extremely fatigued for as much as a week, and typical symptoms include fever over 100 degrees F, cough, sore throat, headache, and body aches. For previously healthy students whose illness in not severe, neither testing nor antiviral treatment is recommended. Students who experience flu-like symptoms who have underlying medical conditions placing them at higher risk of complications, should contact a health-care provider, including UHS, to discuss treatment.

Influenza is usually transmitted through respiratory droplets—that is, from uncovered coughs and sneezes, or from hands making contact with a surface contaminated by invisible droplets and then touching eyes, nose, or mouth. It is not spread through food or water.

The good news is, the virus is not very hardy and survives only about 2 to 8 hours on surfaces. It is easily deactivated by standard household disinfectant products. And basic precautions such as frequent and thorough hand washing and keeping hands away from the face are effective at lowering a person’s risk of infection.

Unfortunately, those simple habits can be very hard to develop. And students tend to live a very social life, sharing everything from remote controls to towels to beverage containers. We don’t want them to unduly worry about exposure to influenza. But we know they are concentrating on many things at this time of the semester, and trying not to get sick is not high up on their list.

Here’s how you can help:

–Talk with your student now about developing a Personal Influenza Plan, in the event of illness. If they do get sick, is there someone living within a day’s drive who could pick them up in a car and take them to a home where they could recuperate? If they will be staying in Madison, are they able to stay in a separate bedroom from others for the duration of their illness? Is there someone in town who could bring groceries and supplies to their door, if needed? Do they have access to enough money to get by if they have to miss work for a week? Students living in residence halls who can return home to recover are strongly encouraged to do so, because University Housing is not equipped for large-scale isolation units, and because the students will be more comfortable. However, sick students should not travel by public transportation (buses, trains, or airplanes). And they should not recuperate in your home if anyone there has a “high-risk” medical condition.

–All students should know whether they have a “high-risk” medical condition (asthma or other chronic pulmonary disease; cancer; cardiovascular disease; diabetes; pregnancy; weakened immune system; or kidney, liver, blood, or neurological disorder). This does not mean they are at higher risk of contracting influenza. But it does mean that their symptoms could be more severe if they did get sick. Students with “high-risk” conditions should call their healthcare provider now for consultation and promptly if they develop flu symptoms (fever with cough or sore throat), or if someone they live with (or have been in close contact with in the past 24 hours) develops flu symptoms. Medications may be recommended in some cases to prevent influenza.

–Students who do not have “high-risk” conditions but who need medical advice can contact University Health Services (608-265-5600). However, influenza responds well to self-care, and students do not need to make an appointment if they feel comfortable caring for themselves. Students should not come to the health service in order to get a medical excuse for missing class.

–All students should be encouraged to get their free flu shots. UHS will start giving seasonal influenza vaccinations on September 21. Current estimates for H1N1 vaccine delivery are late October or early November.

–We encourage you to continue checking our website and watching for Parent Program updates throughout the semester for information about the situation on campus. If you have questions that aren’t answered there, we ask you to email

Thank you for your assistance,

Sarah Van Orman, M.D.

Executive Director, University Health Services