Flu On Campus: Avoiding Misery For $20 Every year, about 1 in 4 college students gets the flu. A $20 flu shot can be a cheap insurance policy against aching joints and muscles, high fever, missed classes. But even that isn't enough to motivate some students to get vaccinated, so one health expert is trying an economic argument.

Flu On Campus: Avoiding Misery For $20

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/97780307/97785591" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Next we look at the toll influenza takes among the nation's 18 million college students and what some people are trying to do about it. NPR's Richard Knox reports.

RICHARD KNOX: Bradley West(ph), who's a freshman at Northeastern University in Boston, thinks he recently had one of the first flu cases of the season.

Mr. BRADLEY WEST (Student, Northeastern University): Maybe it was a cold. I'm pretty sure it was the flu, though, because I had a high fever and runny nose, and I was just achy all over.

KNOX: He felt miserable. He'd passed up a chance to get a flu shot on campus this fall, and he still doesn't see the point.

Mr. WEST: I was giving all my friends a hard time who were like, let's get the flu shots, because they had a health fair here.

KNOX: You were giving them a hard time because they wanted to?

Mr. WEST: Yeah.

KNOX: Why?

Mr. WEST: Because they wanted the flu shots, because it's just the flu. If you get it, you get it. If not, no worries.

KNOX: Dr. Peter Doyle runs into this attitude all the time. He heads Northeastern University's student health service. Doyle thinks a lot of students arrive at college not really realizing how bad a bout of flu can be.

Dr. PETER DOYLE (Director of Student Health Services, Northeastern University): The true flu can be a week-or-two-long illness of aching joints, aching muscles, high fever, pounding headache, inability to get out of bed, shaking chills - a completely disruptive illness.

KNOX: Every year, some of Northeastern's 25,000 students end up in the hospital with bacterial pneumonia that can follow on the heels of the flu. That can be fatal even in previously healthy young adults. But since college students typically think they're invincible, Doyle often makes an argument he thinks might hit closer to home.

Dr. DOYLE: Colleges now are typically between $15,000 and $25,000 a semester. If someone is sick for two weeks, you can gut the core of your semester. You can have to redo or dump your courses for that time period and lose $25,000.

KNOX: Doyle was happy to see that argument documented by a study published this week in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Its authors looked at the impact of the flu and of flu shots on more than 12,000 students on two Minnesota campuses over four flu seasons. The payoff of vaccination was big.

Dr. ED EHLINGER (Director, Boynton Health Services, University of Minnesota): For every two people that we vaccinated, we had one less day of influenza-like illness.

KNOX: Dr. Ed Ehlinger heads the University of Minnesota's health services.

Dr. EHLINGER: College students who got vaccinated had fewer missed days of class, did actually better on assignments, missed fewer days of work, and had fewer visits to the doctor's office, and took fewer doses of antibiotics.

KNOX: Dr. Lance Rodewald was happy to see the new study, partly because his daughter is a junior at the University of Georgia who didn't think she needed a flu shot. He heads immunization programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. LANCE RODEWALD (Director, Immunization Services Division, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): As soon as I saw this article, I put it in an email and sent it on to her so that she could see a really good way to protect herself and make her second semester hopefully disease-free from the influenza standpoint.

KNOX: Rodewald says she now promises to get vaccinated. The CDC doesn't consider young adults under 19 a priority for getting flu shots, but Ehlinger does. This fall he challenged the University of Minnesota's 50,000 students to break into the Guinness Book of World Records in the category of most flu shots in a single day.

Dr. EHLINGER: We made a big push and immunized 11,810 students, faculty, and staff at the University of Minnesota in one big push. And we smashed the previous record which was about 3,200 flu shots given in a day.

KNOX: The sales pitch was altruistic.

Dr. EHLINGER: Our slogan is, do it for the herd. Do it for yourself, but also get the herd immunity so that you keep it from spreading in your community.

KNOX: Ehlinger figures the campaign will prevent something like 5,000 days of illness on his campus this season. That's nearly 14 years' worth of sick days. Richard Knox, NPR News, Boston.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.