H1N1 vs. “The Invincibles”

November 2, 2009 

stop-fluIt’s safe to say that thermometers are not a typical part of dorm welcome kits for incoming UCLA students.

But they are this year. It’s just one way that H1N1, known on the street as the swine flu, is changing the flu season conversation for a whole generation of young adults not used to being in the “high priority” hotseat.

In short: This ain’t your grandma’s flu.

Emily Bossak, a 22-year-old UNLV graduate who recently moved here and plans to attend UCLA law school, wouldn’t ordinarily get a flu shot but decided to get vaccinated recently at Los Angeles County’s first H1N1 immunization clinic in Encino.

“Usually when I think seasonal flu, I think people 50 and over,” Bossak says.

Senior citizens, who ordinarily turn out in the biggest numbers for seasonal flu shots, don’t even make the priority list for H1N1—unless they fall into one of the other risk groups. (In addition to young people from ages 6 months to 24 years, those groups are: pregnant women; those caring for infants younger than 6 months; health care and emergency workers, and people from ages 24 to 64 years with health conditions that put them at higher risk for flu-related complications.)

Medical officials believe that older people may have picked up some immunity from exposure to a similar flu strain in the 1950s. In any case, those most likely to be hospitalized this time around are in their teens.

“I actually read that book ‘The Great Influenza,’” Bossak says, noting that she was struck by the magnitude of the 1918 pandemic—“especially with all the deaths in my age group.” She adds that her father, a doctor, recently told her that one of his colleague’s daughters had died of the disease.

Does this kind of heightened awareness mean that all her friends are lining up to get vaccinated, too? Not so much. “They’re more afraid of the symptoms of the shot,” Bossak says.

To encourage awareness, dispel myths, promote good flu season hygiene and put out fast-breaking news about H1N1—particularly about nationwide vaccine shortages—Los Angeles County public health officials are using youth-friendly channels such as Twitter and YouTube to spread the word, along with the department’s website.

In addition, Dr. Alonzo Plough, the department’s director of emergency preparedness, recently provided a briefing for college newspapers.

Young adults—sometimes described as “the invincibles” for their it-can’t-happen-to-me outlook—are an important group to reach, health officials say. “That’s the age where we all believe we’re invulnerable,” Plough says. Not only do they often live with roommates—“How quickly this can spread in a dormitory population!”—but this age group also has a “tendency to be uninsured.”

For people who cannot get immunized through a private provider (or in the case of students, through a university health service), the county is hosting a series of free H1N1 vaccination clinics, at locations including Hollywood Park and the Pomona Fairplex, as well as at recreation centers and a number of college campuses, including two at the USC-Lyons Center and Santa Monica College. (The complete list is here.) Because of vaccine shortages, however, officials for now are asking those who do not fall into priority groups to wait until expected shipments arrive in coming weeks.

At the county’s first vaccine clinic in Encino, Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the county’s director of public health, received the first shot. Part of the healthcare worker priority group, he suited up in his white doctor’s coat and administered the vaccine to Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. His priority group: adults with underlying medical conditions, in his case, diabetes.

“When was the last time you gave a shot?” Yaroslavsky joshed as he rolled up his sleeve, smiling and later telling reporters, “Jonathan Fielding actually administered the shot and I didn’t even cry. It was a wonderful experience.”

After that came Jaxon Irribarra, 13 months, and his 24-year-old mother, Jessica Gonzalez.

“This is the first time I’ve gotten one,” Gonzalez says. “We both fall in the high risk groups, and I thought it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Yaroslavsky calls the rollout “the largest mobilization of public health since the polio epidemic of the mid-1950s” and called on the public, particularly those in priority groups, to get their shots, too:

“By receiving the H1N1 vaccine, you not only protect yourself, but you protect your loved ones as well. You also protect your co-workers, students, children in schools as well as the rest of the community.”

Looking out for oneself—and for others—has been a big part of the message at UCLA, where university officials have created a self-screening questionnaire for students, developed a Create Your Flu Pack guide (“Be a Bruin Flu Fighter!”) and are offering an online “H1N1 Influenza Vaccine Wait List” to help organize administering the still-scarce vaccine.

It’s a message that’s hard to miss on campus.

“There’s posters, there’s banners, there’s hand sanitizer dispensers,” says James Gibson, director of UCLA’s Department of Environment, Health & Safety. “At our (seasonal) flu clinics, we’ve vaccinated many more people than we have in the past. It’s a much bigger issue that it has been in the past.”

Some 1,200 students have come down with influenza-like illnesses over the past four weeks, according to Susan Quillan, chief of Clinical Services at UCLA’s Arthur Ashe Health and Wellness Center, but only 250 have gone to the Ashe Center for treatment.

That’s an indication that students are following advice to “self-isolate” when they come down with flu-like symptoms, and that roommates and friends are pitching in to care for those who fall ill.

“The majority of the people in the dorms are responding to the education,” Quillan says.

Andrew Hattala, 24, a resident assistant at UCLA’s Hedrick Hall, said the dorm had quarantining rooms available and noted that housekeeping was doing extra sanitizing when requested. And he noted that washing your hands and “coughing into your elbow” were suddenly statements of personal responsibility.

“You see how important the things are that you learned in elementary school.”


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