Probable Swine Flu Spreading As More Flock to MIT Medical

Four patients have tested positive for influenza A at MIT Medical in the past week, Chief of Medicine Howard M. Heller said yesterday.

The cases are suspected to be H1N1 “swine flu,” and not the regular flu; the rapid test that Medical administers cannot distinguish between the two. “We’re calling it ‘presumptive H1N1’ — we don’t know for sure” Heller said. The Massachusetts Health Commission does not recommend further testing to confirm H1N1.

The real number of flu cases may be much higher because only the at-risk are tested.

It is unknown how many people on campus actually have H1N1, though there is evidence that the flu is spreading. “We’ve definitely had an increase in the number of people coming in for flu symptoms,” Heller said. For each of the past five days, Medical has received 15–20 visitors with “influenza-like illness,” Heller said.

Not every patient is tested — only those with severe symptoms or underlying conditions like asthma and diabetes. The rest are told to get rest and avoid human contact. Twenty tests were administered in the past week.

Heller said that symptoms of H1N1 are not much different from the regular flu. “People who are healthy tend to get over it quickly,” Heller said. He recommends that the sick take steps to isolate themselves from others. He emphasizes that those who have serious symptoms should be coming in for care.

No one has been hospitalized yet, Heller said.

A student in McCormick said that when she visited Medical with a fever and flu-like symptoms, she was told to stay home, alternate between Tylenol and Ibuprofen, and to avoid having visitors. She was given a face mask. “They were really serious,” she said. “They told me to not open my door for people.”

Heller said that the isolation procedures are just recommendations to help slow down the spread of the flu. No one is being quarantined. “The spread of flu around campus is inevitable,” Heller said. “Everybody is going to the gym and to classes … and people are contagious before they develop symptoms.”

Vaccines for the regular flu have begun to arrive at Medical already, Heller said, and he recommends that people get vaccinated. As usual, Medical will be offering mass vaccination clinics on campus, though the times have not yet been announced.

The H1N1 vaccine will be arriving either in late October or early November, Heller said. Medical expects to receive enough doses for 30,000 people. The MIT Medical website said that shortages are not expected, though people under age 24 will be given priority, as will infants, pregnant women, and healthcare workers.

Heller said H1N1 will probably continue to spread in the coming weeks. “We’re expecting we’re going to be seeing more H1N1. There’s a good chance we will see it peaking in the next month and then start trickling down.”

“We’re prepared,” Heller said. “We’ve been preparing for three years. Everybody’s been gearing up.”

The MIT Medical website has information about H1N1, including instructions to prevent the spread of the flu. People should wash their hands, avoid touching their eyes, noses or mouths, and cover their mouths when they cough. They should avoid coming close to people who are sick.