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With ‘I Got My Flu Shot’ Stickers, HUHS Wards Off Winter Epidemic

HealthPALs stand in Eliot House's dining hall during dinner hours to offer students the flu vaccine last fall.
HealthPALs stand in Eliot House's dining hall during dinner hours to offer students the flu vaccine last fall. By Awnit Singh Marta
By Brie K. Buchanan and Oliver L. Riskin-Kutz, Contributing Writers

Harvard University Health Services, with the help of undergraduates, is gearing up to prevent a flu epidemic on campus this winter, holding vaccination clinics and encouraging people to get their flu shot.

Earlier this month, HUHS started hosting vaccination clinics, offering free flu shots to all University affiliates. Harvard students, faculty, and staff can walk over to HUHS in the Smith Campus Center to receive their shots, and HUHS is also running mobile clinics out of the Law School, Business School, Medical School, and undergraduate dining halls.

HealthPALS member Margaret “Maggie” E. Reynolds ’20 said the student organization assists HUHS in coordinating these clinics for College students.

“All they have to do is fill out a form, they get in line, the nurse gives them their flu shot, and then they get a little ‘I got my flu shot’ sticker at the end of it,” Reynolds said.

Riley E. Hoveland ’22 said she appreciated the convenience of the clinics.

“It takes literally three seconds and it doesn’t hurt, so why wouldn’t you get one?” she said.

Donna V. Campbell, the infection control surveillance officer for HUHS, said the flu clinics aim to immunize a large percentage of Harvard affiliates by making vaccinations convenient and accessible.

“We’re aiming for herd immunity,” Campbell explained. Herd immunity is an epidemiological term that describes a situation where a large percentage of a population is immunized from an infectious disease thus also protecting individuals who are not immune from the disease.

“You’re getting a flu shot, but you’re basically trying to protect other people who can’t,” she added.

In addition to the flu clinics happening throughout the week, Reynolds also encouraged people to take simple preventative measures to limit the spread of the flu. Reynolds said it’s “all the silly things we’ve learned since we were five” — washing hands, covering coughs, and being aware of the people around you.

Campbell agreed, saying these preventative measures, in addition to the vaccine, are essential for limiting the virus’s spread. The Center for Disease Control found that last year’s vaccine was only about 40 percent effective; most experts estimate that the vaccine takes two weeks to be fully effective.

William P. Hanage, a epidemiology professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, said part of this problem arises from the way the vaccines are created.

“Flu is a moving target,” Hanage said. “We have to make a very educated guess, or as educated as you possibly can be, as to what’s going to be a problem down the line.”

This year, Hanage said the flu seems to be derived from the H1N1 strain, the same one that caused the 2009 swine flu pandemic. He warned about the unpredictability of the flu, especially this early in the season. But from observing the flu season so far in Australia, he said this year’s flu seems moderate.

Nevertheless, Campbell said the unique nature of a college campus environment affects community efforts to prevent the spread of the flu.

Campbell said college students might be particularly prone to infection: “Any kind of communal living situation is kind of a hotbed for anything that’s infectious.”

On the other hand, Reynolds said the close-knit environment of a college campus can also have advantages for flu prevention. She said people often go with their friends to get shots, or are prompted by seeing the “I got my flu shot” stickers.

Campbell said HUHS encourages people to get their shot soon. She added that most cases of the flu are observed after Thanksgiving because affiliates leave campus and often return with diseases from other environments. She said the most important thing to prevent a flu epidemic on campus is for everyone to be vaccinated.

“Everybody should have a flu shot. Everybody," she said.

Hanage agreed. “If you’re offered a vaccine, take it," he said.

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