Flu loses student interest

As swine flu slowly retreats, a less aggressive flu prevention strategy moves into the Yale campus.

A new study by researchers at the School of Medicine has found that as the H1N1 pandemic progressed last year, the American public became less inclined to seek preventative measures against the virus. At Yale this year, students may exhibit the same type of behavior as Yale HEALTH has decreased the range of locations and dates of their seasonal flu clinics compared to the 2009 fall semester. Without a pandemic this flu season, students interviewed said they are less worried about the illness and are less likely to be vaccinated due to the location of the clinics.

“I think people may not be as highly anxious about it,” director of student health Jim Perlotto said. “They’re less clamoring for vaccines.”

A study led by Yoko Ibuka, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the medical school, investigates how the public reacted to the high profile H1N1 pandemic, said Gretchen Chapman, psychology professor at Rutgers University and co-author of the paper. The study, published in the Journal BMC Infectious Diseases on Oct. 14, found that the media and public health authorities play an important role in epidemic responses, she said.

But by the time H1N1 hit campus mid-last year, health administrators had already planned their seasonal flu clinics for the fall semester.

Fourteen sessions were scheduled between mid-September and Nov. 4 in locations around campus that ranged from Science Park and the School of Medicine to Woolsey Hall and the Hall of Graduate Studies.

But this year only 11 flu clinics are being offered by Yale HEALTH in the fall semester. The majority of these clinics will be held at the Health Center on Lock Street, according to Yale HEALTH’s website.

“We did not have the on-site capacity for large numbers of patients at 17 Hillhouse [the former site of the University’s health services] but the new building provides us with this resource,” he said.

But some students said the new location of the flu clinics may deter them from seeking the vaccine.

“I think I’m more likely to procrastinate getting the vaccine because of the distance,” Connie Cho ’13 said.

Two other students interviewed said they do not intend to be vaccinated this year because they said they do not need it, supporting Ibuka’s study, which said that as media hype around a fatal disease fades and people begin to view it as common, perceived need of preventative measures declines.

And this apathy towards vaccination was witnessed even during the H1N1 epidemic, which, during its peak on campus in October 2009, garnered upwards of 50 new reported cases some days, Genecin said.

“We didn’t get a lot of push for the vaccines from students,” Genecin said. “But we did get a lot of phone calls from parents.”

Ibuka’s study helps to explain this disinterest in preventative measures.

By conducting a series of internet-based surveys that asked participants about their willingness to engage in precautionary activities over the time of the pandemic, the research team was able to gauge the response of the public to the epidemic as it progressed from a virtual unknown to a potential killer to a common illness, Chapman explained.

Chapman attributed the high level of national and international awareness and interest in H1N1 to the media hype surrounding the disease.

But as time progressed and media hype lessened, the public’s response to the virus changed, the study found.

While people understood the nature and prevalence of the disease, Ibuka’s study found that the public’s willingness to obtain preventive measures, like vaccines, decreased, a phenomena Chapman attributes primarily to the decrease in media attention.

Two days after the study began, at a time when the disease was still largely concentrated outside of the United States, the interest in preventative treatments peaked, she said.

“It’s interesting how quickly changes happened after the outbreak,” Chapman said.

The fall of interest in preventative treatments during the pandemic, she said, can be attributed to the idea that H1N1 was not as serious as previously feared and that media coverage of the disease began to wane.

But there are also risks involved when the media “hypes” diseases during epidemics, she said, such as xenophobia or people being too afraid to go to work.

The analysis of the geographical differences indicates a different phenomenon.

“People that live in states which have a higher likelihood in encountering the H1N1 know what the risk of the state is,” she said. “This is particularly surprising because laypeople were not particularly tracking the information.”

Instead, Chapman hypothesizes that the survey participants were able to detect subtle trends in the news and other sources, which “makes people seem more rational,” she said.

The research was funded by grants from the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation.

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