Science

The truth about the flu at University

By Caterina Dassie’

Research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealing how simply breathing is enough to transmit influenza. More studies have been carried out to see how the viral infections are transmitted and why certain people are more infectious than others.

Donald Milton, professor and director of the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health, University of Maryland School of Public Health and leader of the project, argues that these viruses easily spread from one person to another, from different ways including sneezing, coughing and, of course, touching. Therefore, environment like schools, universities, hospitals, and thus, large community-based public spaces in general, are the perfect habitat for viruses.

In the early study, breath samples were collected using a cubicle-sized machine where patients exhale into a cone. The infectious virus was detected in 39% of 134 samples of fine-aerosol. The results came from patients who had simply exhaled breath and were not asked to cough on purpose. These fine fluid particles, due to their 5 microns diameter can remain in the air and thus, hypothetically contribute to the spread of the influenza virus. Shockingly, neither coughing or sneezing appeared the main cause of the transmission.

In the research released in early February named C.A.T.C.H. (Characterizing and Tracking College Health), Milton focused firstly on having an insight into the different viral infections, which were mostly respiratory, caused by flu viruses, coronaviruses, respiratory syncytial virus and adenoviruses. The professor, together with his team, utilized the same machine used in the previous study to capture breath samples which have then been analysed and the outcomes integrated to the ones found via blood tests and nasal cloths from students at the University of Maryland.

Secondly, the team was looking for how much of the air in two dorms of the University of Maryland was actually from people’s exhalations and which percentage of these contained the influenza virus. While in the laboratory, researchers were collecting breath samples and DNA tests to estimate student’s aerial exposure to influenza viruses and the specific virus infecting them.

“The virus mutates reasonably fast,” Milton says and therefore is crucial to “establish who infected whom, and where, and how”. But there are still different factors which must be taken into consideration i.e. prior year vaccinations. Thus, more research needs to be done in order to have reliable outcomes, a better understanding of the flu virus trajectory and the possibility for new policies. Once the sample collection will be wider, hopefully with the upcoming flu season, C.A.T.C.H. might be key in detecting the virus transmission not only in university campuses but in every indoor public space.

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