H1N1 pandemic gives students a chance to learn and help others

You might have seen the big green germ hanging out at the HUB-Robeson Center recently. In fact, you might have hugged it (many people did), or the germ might have talked to you about how dangerous it can be, especially in large groups of people. That germ costume is giving four students (one health policy and administration student and three nursing students) a unique learning opportunity and a chance to help others stay healthy. It’s one aspect of the students’ internship with the Infection Control and Prevention department of University Health Services (UHS), which also gives them a chance to help coordinate and run vaccination clinics and monitor the spread of H1N1.

Lauren Zaun, one of the nursing students interning at UHS, targeted places in State College where the flu is likely to be spread: fraternities and THON. Both attract large groups of people who stay in contact for an extended period of time, which is an ideal breeding ground for a virus that spreads through coughing, sneezing and contact with contaminated surfaces.

Zaun, a sorority member who is involved in THON for her third year, established regular communication with many members of Penn State’s fraternities and sororities. She informed them about how dangerous the H1N1 virus could be, and when Penn State would be offering vaccination clinics. She also contacted THON “overalls” (high-level members) to ensure that sick students were not visiting children. With their help, that information trickled down to THON committees and participants, providing a greater awareness of the dangers of H1N1.

“I saw that many people weren’t taking H1N1 as seriously as they should,” Zaun said. “The usual comment I heard was, ‘It’s just the flu.’ But it hits certain people a lot harder than others.”

Ann Miller, a health policy and administration student, said she enjoys being proactive by promoting awareness and information about the virus “on the front line.” She and the other three interns also get a behind-the-scenes look at monitoring and managing pandemics. They take data on how and where the flu has hit and upload the data to giant networks -- run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American College Health Association (ACHA) -- to keep track of the spread of the virus.

“It’s important to know what’s going on worldwide to try to figure out what we should be anticipating,” said Shelley Haffner, manager of infection control and prevention at UHS, who is supervising the interns. Haffner said that the students have made an enormous difference in keeping up-to-date with the trends of the virus.

For Miller, who plans on attending graduate school for epidemiology, this means useful hands-on training. She has become so well versed on H1N1 through this internship that she now has family members, friends and neighbors calling her with questions.

Being the go-to person for students’ H1N1 questions was an informative experience, said nursing student and UHS intern Nicole Horbury.

“I learned a lot about epidemiology and the H1N1 virus just from having to answer students’ questions,” she said. She said her internship has been practical. “Nursing and epidemiology go hand-in-hand. No matter which area of nursing you’re working in, you’ll see things like the flu at some point.”

The interns are taking on managerial roles by finding and supervising nursing student volunteers who administer vaccinations at the clinics. At the clinic on Nov. 6, for example, the interns rounded up 22 student volunteers to help in the administration of nearly 1,000 vaccinations. For students such as Ashley Mueller, a nursing student and UHS intern, who wish to eventually work in management, this is an ideal experience.

“We don’t have a lot of pandemics in this country,” Mueller said. “It’s a great experience to be involved with, as a student.”

For more information on how Penn State is preparing for H1N1, visit http://live.psu.edu/tag/flu online.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010