Shots, 3 C’s Help Battle Aggressive Flu Strain

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

It’s not as if Armida Ruiz-Martinez likes to say “I told you so,” but circumstances – and a bout with the flu – compelled her.

Ruiz-Martinez, assistant director of UTEP’s Human Resource Services office, organized flu vaccinations at The University of Texas at El Paso’s Union Building East in late October for staff, faculty and their families. More than 500 people joined her in rolling up their sleeves for a shot in the arm to protect against the seasonal H3N2 flu.There are many good reasons to get the flu shot annually, from heightened resistance to multiple viruses to lessening the risk of cardiovascular disease, said German Rosas-Acosta, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences and an international expert in influenza research.There are many good reasons to get the flu shot annually, from heightened resistance to multiple viruses to lessening the risk of cardiovascular disease, said German Rosas-Acosta, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences and an international expert in influenza research.

Among those who did not participate: her 19- and 20-year-old daughters. Sure enough, they caught the flu and gave it to Ruiz-Martinez right before winter break. Merry Christmas, Mom.

“I got the sore throat, the fever, chills and body aches,” a healthy Ruiz-Martinez said upon her return to campus. “I just felt lousy.”

Despite catching the flu, she said that thanks to the vaccine, her symptoms were not as severe as those that affected her daughters. Both had to spend about a week of their vacation in bed; the younger one needed to see a doctor.

“I hope they learned their lesson,” she said.

Concerns about this year’s flu season, which arrived early and reached epidemic proportions around much of the country, remain as about 21,000 students returned to campus for the spring semester. Although it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to reach maximum strength, many experts strongly suggest those who have not been immunized get the shot because the season is expected to last another six weeks.  

The City of El Paso’s Department of Public Health had reported 1,989 flu cases this season as of mid-January. By comparison, there were only 31 cases of flu during the same time period during last year's flu season. A typical El Paso flu season peaks in late January or February, but this season has been different.

Louise P. Castro, director of UTEP’s Student Health Center, said her staff promoted flu shots during new student orientations in the fall and it may have paid off. Since October, almost 300 students visited the center on the first floor of Union East to get a $20 flu shot. She said the center still has plenty of doses.

Castro said the center’s charts show that four students have been diagnosed with the flu this season, which is about average for this time of year. The registered nurse, who earned her master’s in nursing at UTEP in 1987 and has been in the health care field 39 years, asked the Miner Nation to follow the three C’s of flu prevention: Clean – wash your hands often with soap and water or a hand sanitizer; Cover – cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or the crook of your elbow; and Contain – stay home or as isolated as possible if you have flu symptoms.

Charlie Gibbens, Ed.D., director of residence life, said his staff has made disinfectants and hand sanitizers available to students who live at Miner Village and Miner Heights. 

“We encourage cleanliness and try to make everyone aware of the presence of the Student Health Center,” he said.

Almost 200 University athletes got their flu shots during the fall semester, most in early October, said Dawn Hearn, head athletic trainer. She said the athletics flu shot program started in the early 1990s to bolster the immunity of UTEP’s men’s and women’s basketball teams that traveled on commercial jets.

“During (past seasons) we were seeing a lot of sick kids,” said Hearn, who has been at UTEP since 1988 and became head trainer seven years later. The system has been streamlined through the years, and now “shot day” is a well-oiled assembly line of athletes filing through the X-Ray Room in the Larry K. Durham Center. She said the vaccinations have helped keep the number of student flu cases low – about 10 to 15 per year.

“The main benefit is that we keep (the student athletes) healthy,” she said from her Durham Center office. “Getting a (flu) shot is just like having an ankle taped.”

There are many good reasons to get the flu shot annually, from heightened resistance to multiple viruses to lessening the risk of cardiovascular disease, said German Rosas-Acosta, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences and an international expert in influenza research.

He said there is a lot of data that says the shot is “unquestionably” good for you. His fingers skipped across his computer keyboard to call up recently published studies that promoted the increasing evidence that cardiovascular disease could be triggered by infections such as influenza, and that flu vaccinations could cut the risk of a heart attack by up to 50 percent.

“The initial infection damages your natural defenses, weakens you and puts you at risk for strep throat, pneumonia and cardiovascular events such as heart attacks,” Rosas-Acosta said about the more aggressive H3N2 strain. “Get the shot. Do it for your own good and the good of others.”

Castro and Rosas-Acosta asked infected members of Miner Nation to isolate themselves if they get sick and use technology and other resources to stay on top of their University responsibilities.

“You have a better chance of recovering sooner if you stay home. That way you don’t expose yourself to other infections and eliminate the risk of perhaps catching something else,” Rosas-Acosta said.