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ISSUE 119 VOL 7 PUBLISHED 11/4/2005

Avian flu poses familiar threat

By Pat Shabino
Contributing Writer

Friday, November 4, 2005

As news headlines stress the growing fears of a deadly flu epidemic, students may doubt the readiness of St. Olaf to respond to such a disaster. However, with a closer look at the history and the character of the St. Olaf community, such doubts are replaced with examples of how the college has and will continue to respond bravely to even the most tragic circumstances.

During the winter of 1918, the Spanish flu swept the nation and finally came to Northfield.

As new college president Lars V. Boe began his tenure, the campus went quickly under voluntary quarantine that fall. The quarantine appeared to be effective and on Nov. 11, news reached a healthy campus that the armistice had finally been reached in Europe.

Celebration of the new peace would unfortunately be short lived. A few hours later, 15 cases of Spanish Flu would be reported on campus.

Soon after, President Boe acquired a professional medical staff from the army, and the basement of the Hoyme Chapel became a ward for those infected with the virus. Eventually, healthy students were moved to Old Main and Old Ytterboe Hall was converted to a makeshift hospital.

In the following month, the virus would kill four students. The faculty and President Boe would decide to end classes early for the Christmas holiday, sending students home before the epidemic could escalate further.

An issue of the Manitou Messenger from 1918 reports how students and faculty alike volunteered to put themselves at risk by serving as nurses and orderlies to provide care for the sick.

As evidenced in the St. Olaf Archives, the college periodically faces public health concerns, ranging from typhoid in the earliest years to tainted milk from the college dairy in the 1920s and 1930s.

"Even recently there have been scares," Assistant College Archivist Jeff Sauve said. "Just a few years ago, schools across the nation were concerned about meningococcal disease and St. Olaf had to handle that situation."

Today, a new threat looms in the shape of avian flu, otherwise know as the H5N1 influenza virus.

Since 2003, international organizations have been monitoring the progress of this new disease which is responsible for large numbers of deaths in domestic and migratory fowl. As has been reported, this new avian flu has also caused human fatalities, usually among those working in close quarters with birds.

Two properties of this virus explain the growing fear over H5N1. First, unlike common flu, which undergoes minor mutations every year, H5N1 is significantly different from any other flu virus humans have experienced before, and humans have no pre-existing immunities.

While the common flu generally only kills those with weakened immune systems, the avian flu quickly causes a strong immune response in the infected, to the point where vital body functions shut down and the person dies. Those with the weakest immune systems will react the most, and are at the most risk for contracting the virus.

The H5N1 is only transmitted between fowl and from fowl directly to humans, causing only sporadic cases. However, the fear is that this virus may recombine, mix its genome with another flu virus in a host and spawn a deadly virus capable of human to human transmission.

With no natural defense and the ease of modern international travel, an epidemic could quickly become a pandemic. Over the past year the virus has spread to new animal hosts as reported in “Nature” and other journals and news agencies, increasing these concerns.

The high projected mortality rate has led many to compare the possible pandemic to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, yet this comparison may not be entirely fair. Today, resources exist to combat a pandemic provided there is enough time to prepare and the correct actions are taken.

Unfortunately, as the situation stands, the medical community has no guaranteed quick cures to offer. Currently, there are only two ways to combat avian flu: the antiviral drug Tamiflu and a prototype vaccine based on the animal H5N1 virus currently under development. The United States has recently begun to promote more vaccine research and production, as well as begin dialogue with the international community about monitoring and containing a possible outbreak.

With this threat in mind, St. Olaf has taken prudent steps to plan for a potential epidemic. St. Olaf has already drafted policy on SARS and, as Dean of Students Greg Kneser explained, "a policy on avian flu would follow similar lines."

St. Olaf is taking cues from public health agencies across the nation including the Centers for Disease Control and University of Minnesota Boynton Health Service to continue to monitor the situation.

"The current policy is to stay informed and continue to monitor how the situation develops," Kneser said. "Luckily, with modern communications we can disseminate any necessary information to our community rather quickly."

Kneser advocated that students remain informed on the changing situation and prepare for the coming common flu season. Students may want to consider vaccination against common flu strains and should exercise prudence in the coming months. Responsible measures include proper and regular hand-washing and not attending class while sick.

The avian flu situation calls for continued monitoring, but students should be reassured that St. Olaf will follow any guidelines and recommendations laid out by public health agencies to make the most prudent and reasonable decisions to protect those living on campus, should an outbreak occur.

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