MIT Medical Is Prepared in Case of Swine Flu Outbreak

2075 swineflu facts
An image of an N1 neuraminidase complexed with Tamiflu, based on X-ray diffraction studies.
Source: Protein Data BankStructure 2HU4

MIT’s emergency planning arm is prepared to handle an outbreak of the swine flu, although administrators say they expect the disease to manifest less like a pandemic and more like a tough flu season.

For several years, MIT has prepared an emergency pandemic plan which includes cancelling classes or final exams, suspending nonessential research, changing Commencement, and even sending students back home. But right now, the most effective way to fight swine flu will involve educating the community about coughing etiquette, hygiene, and what to do if you get symptoms.

The disease, Influenza A subtype H1N1, has been confirmed in 40 people in the United States, including 28 in New York, the Centers for Disease Control said on Monday afternoon. Although the disease is “just” the flu, it comes after the year’s flu season has subsided, and it has concerned health officials because it is blamed for more than a hundred deaths in Mexico. Of the 40 U.S. cases, only one person was hospitalized, and all 40 people recovered, the CDC said.

MIT plans a “large campaign of teaching people how to protect themselves,” said William VanSchalkwyk, managing director of MIT Environmental Health and Safety.

So far, most Institute planning has been behind-the-scenes, VanSchalkwyk said.

MIT’s emergency operations center will act on measures like cancelling classes based on instructions from MIT Medical, which will be guided by CDC public health advisories and state health agencies.

For now, MIT is paying close attention to the situation. Anyone who comes into Medical with flu symptoms will be tested for the flu.

Normally, MIT Medical does not bother to test people who have been sick for more than 3–4 days because antiviral drugs will be ineffective, said Howard M. Heller, chief of internal medicine at MIT Medical.

MIT stocks both Tamiflu and Relenza, antiviral drugs which are effective against the current swine flu, Heller said.

People with asthma or pneumonia, or the young or elderly, are at high risk of becoming especially sick when infected with the flu.

Monday was a busy day in Medical’s urgent care department, with visitors coming in because they had heard about the outbreak, they had just returned from Mexico, or their parents had told them to come in and get checked, Heller said. No cases of influenza were confirmed as of Monday afternoon.

The Institute has done preliminary checks to see how many students are doing work in Mexico or other areas affected by the swine flu outbreak. “So far, the number is zero,” VanSchalkwyk said.

MIT is fortunate to be facing an outbreak near the end of the semester, VanSchalkwyk said. Classes are mostly finished could be ended early if necessary. Of course, Commencement is a thorny issue.

It’s reassuring that the flu has come up now, Heller said, because people don’t spend much time confined in close quarters during the spring and summer compared with other seasons.

MIT’s message for now: wash your hands; don’t touch your nose, eyes, or mouth when you’re in public; and cover your coughs and sneezes.

While MIT plans to tell community members to practice good hygiene, elsewhere, Facilities and Housing staff are working to prevent illness by disinfecting more surfaces and cleaning public areas like Athena clusters.

Prevention is “hard, tedious work,” VanSchalkwyk said. “It’s not glitzy, but it gets things done.”

So far, no cases of swine flu have been confirmed in Massachusetts. About two dozen people in the state have been tested for swine flu, the Associated Press reported yesterday. That number includes two young children in Lowell, Mass., who recently returned from Mexico and had influenza symptoms; test results for the two are expected today.

In the United States, the disease seems to be nowhere near as deadly as avian flu H5N1, which has killed 257 of the 421 who have contracted it from 2003–2009, according to the World Health Organization.

Meanwhile, a national health emergency has been declared in the U.S., and the World Health Organization has raised its pandemic alert to level 4, a signal that they consider “pandemic” disease possible but not inevitable.

Health officials have been concerned because most people do not have immunity to this strain.

A genetically different strain of H1N1 was big in 1976, when hundreds of Army recruits came down with the flu. One died, and the government responded by vaccinating more than 40 million Americans. The pandemic never came, and debate continues over whether side effects attributed to the vaccinations were worth it and whether publicity overstated the disease’s dangers.