Roughly 5,000 University community members have received free influenza vaccinations as part of FluFest, University Health Services’ seasonal flu shot program. The necessity of immunization may be particularly high this year, since the indicates similar problems might occur in the United States.
“By making FluFest such a prominent event in the life of the campus, UHS hopes to promote a positive perspective on campus regarding immunizations and evidence-based prevention of communicable disease,” Irini Daskalaki, an infectious disease specialist at UHS, wrote in an email.
Because college students live in such close quarters, they are more susceptible to the spread of respiratory infections such as the common cold and influenza. All students were encouraged to take advantage of the free immunizations in an email from UHS Executive Director John Kolligan.
Roughly 45 percent of students and 40 percent of faculty members received shots at FluFest, according to Daskalaki.
The influenza virus is unusual because its virus particles contain genetic information in eight segments — which gives it an advantage in adapting to host environments — and because it has a broad host range, meaning it can infect and spread across both mammals and birds, according to molecular biology professor Lynn Enquist. Viral infections in different animals can lead to a rearrangement of the eight viral segments, which in turn creates fresh variations of the flu each year. New seasonal strains arise, and new vaccinations are necessary, since last year’s immune defenses are unable to recognize the current year’s virus.
This genetic flexibility means that vaccine developers must predict what kind of virus will spread in the new flu season, a process that is less than perfect. Recent estimates place the of last year’s vaccine between 40 and 60 percent. However, measures of vaccination success are difficult to interpret, Enquist explained.
“Does a vaccine that is 40 percent effective mean that 40 of 100 vaccinated people are completely protected and 60 are not? Does it mean that all vaccinated people have 40 percent protection? How do you measure protection? No disease, reduced time that you are ill?” Enquist asked.
Enquist suggested that a vaccine’s effectiveness should be viewed in terms of a population rather than individuals. Even if protection is not perfect and some individuals become infected, reducing the transmission of the virus limits infection in the broader population, and fewer people get sick. This is especially true when all or most of a population receives immunizations.
In addition, widespread vaccinations are important to protect people who are immunocompromised, meaning that they cannot be immunized themselves.
“There are a lot of people on Princeton’s campus, myself included as a Type 1 diabetic, who have some form of autoimmune disorder,” Delaney Miller ’18 said. “A lot of times, someone with a chronic condition has more challenges when they do get the flu, in either fighting it off or having more significant side effects … I think people don’t realize, if they’re healthy, how getting the flu shot can really make a difference for someone else.”
In Australia, only those who are at higher risk for infection, such as pregnant women, children, and the elderly, are recommended to get an immunization. In the United States, the Center for Disease Control recommends that everyone over 6 months old gets vaccinated, which provides additional protection for those with autoimmune disorders by reducing the spread of the virus. Although Australia’s experience of a particularly rough flu outbreak in their winter — from June to the end of August — typically predicts a similarly hard-hitting season in the United States, the higher proportion of vaccination in America may keep the virus more under control.
Students on university campuses can also be susceptible to the spread of the flu since stress and a lack of sleep can lower immune defenses. Within campuses, a higher proportion of student athletes may receive the flu shot since health is important for their continued athletic participation.
While there is no specific flu shot policy for athletes, Miller, who runs for the varsity cross country team, pointed out that student athletes are encouraged by their athletic trainers to get the vaccine in order to protect their performance.
“We’ve had issues in the past where the flu has ruined people's seasons,” Miller said. “Athletic performance is something that a lot of athletes and people on my team really value, so the risk of compromising your season or affecting your teammates’ season is very significant to us.”
In a previous version of this article, Irini Daskalaki's title was misstated. She is an infectious disease specialist at UHS, not an immunologist. The 'Prince' regrets the error.