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Why is this year's flu season so bad?

January 31, 2018

ASU professor says several strains are working their way through immune systems

This year’s flu season has been nasty and unrelenting, and unfortunately, it's ramping up to be the worst in nearly a decade. Immune systems have been strained, emergency rooms jammed, and cough medicine and Kleenex are flying off the shelves.

The deadly epidemic has claimed the lives of 37 children and thousands of adults this season — the result of several different strains of influenza, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And there’s still a few more weeks to endure. ASU Now spoke to Matthew Scotch, an associate professorScotch is also assistant director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering. of biomedical informatics in the College of Health Solutions, to find out why this is the worst flu season in years and how people can protect themselves.

Man in blue hoodie

Matthew Scotch

Question: Why is this year’s flu season hitting people harder than in past years? 

Answer: There are two types of the virus that cause seasonal flu: influenza A and influenza B. Influenza A has two seasonal subtypes: H3N2 and H1N1 (the form of the virus that caused the outbreak in 2009). This year in particular, there has been a dominance of H3N2 influenza A. This virus generally is associated with more severe symptoms. The latest Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data shows that just this past week about 84 percent of the virus tested were influenza A viruses and of the A’s that were subtyped, more than 86 percent were H3N2.

That is just sheer dominance for a very hard-hitting form of the virus. The season also started earlier this year, which doesn’t help. With February starting this week, we are now in the traditional peak time of the season, so the numbers should continue to rise.

Q: What can people do to protect themselves from getting the flu?

A: Getting the vaccine will help, in addition to washing your hands and avoiding people that are already sick. The CDC also recommends that you avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Also try to clean surfaces like work desks and tables.

Q: How effective is the flu shot, and who should get one?

A: The effectiveness varies from year to year mainly because the virus itself rapidly mutates (in particular the H3N2 strain). I haven’t seen any definitive vaccine effectiveness data yet, but a study done during Australia’s flu season indicated that that vaccine was only 10 percent effective against H3N2. Based on historical data, I would be surprised if it was actually that bad. Last year the vaccine was estimated to be 34 percent effective for H3N2 and 42 percent for all A’s and B’s.

Despite these numbers, there are other advantages to getting the flu vaccine. For example, studies have shown that people with the flu shot who still get the flu generally have milder symptoms than those who did not get the vaccine.

The CDC recommends anyone 6 months or older get the vaccine. The vaccine should be received by the end of October. The flu season traditionally ranges from the 40th week (October) to the 20th week (May) of the next calendar year but ramps up after the New Year.

Q: Where can you go to get a flu shot?

A: ASU Health Services will be happy to give you a flu shot. You can also go to your primary-care doctor or even drugstores. 

Top photo: This year's flu season is shaping up to be the worst in years. Virus image courtesy of

Reporter , ASU Now


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ASU sending more first-generation students to study abroad

ASU works to send more first-generation students to study abroad.
ASU Study Abroad Office provides guidance, support to first-gen students.
January 31, 2018

Scholarship, workshops are preparation for a journey that many never expected

For some first-generation students, walking into a college classroom is the end of a long and complicated journey, and for them, traveling to another country for study can seem like an opportunity that’s too far away.

But Arizona State University has created a unique program to help these students find a way to study abroad, and it has been so successful that the university has won a national award for it.

The Planning Scholars program, which provides study-abroad funding and other support for young people who are the first in their families to attend college, has won the 2018 Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion in International Education Award from the Diversity Abroad organization.

Adam Henry, director of ASU’s Study Abroad Office, said the university is honored to win the award, announced Wednesday, and that the scholarship was developed as a direct result of underrepresentation of first-generation students.

“After reviewing the research literature on first-generation students studying abroad, we also created the program around a model of support, and helping participants identify their particular support needs before, during and after their study-abroad experience," he said.

Since 2015, more than 150 students have received the Planning Scholars award from ASU’s Study Abroad Office. Funding is in place for three more groups of 35 students each over the next three years. Students who identify as first-generation on their FAFSA form and have financial need are invited to apply. In the fall 2017 semester, 26 percent of all enrolled students at ASU were the first in their families to go to college, compared with 18 percent a decade ago.

Cody Holt, a senior global studies and global health major from Mesa, didn’t think he would ever study in another country.

“I grew up in a low-income household so that was not financially feasible for us,” he said. “Even the thought of going to college was out … until I got a bunch of scholarships.”

Holt was in the first group of Planning Scholars and did an internship in Beijing in the summer of 2016 through the Study Abroad Office. It was the first time he had left the country, and dealing with homesickness and the language barrier wasn’t easy. But he now talks about his experiences to students at his alma mater, Skyline High School in Mesa.

“I talk about what it means to go to college as someone from a low-income community. How do you navigate things when no one in your family can help you?” he said.

“Study abroad is a microculture of a culture that’s already difficult.”

The Planning Scholars program not only helps pay for travel but also addresses issues that are important to first-generation students, such as not adding extra time to college and helping their families appreciate the value of the experience.

ASU student Catalina Lee had never been to Europe when she started her four-week marketing course in Prague in 2016. "I was blown away when I arrived in the city to see how beautiful and rich in history everything was."

ASU sent about 2,500 students abroad last year, an increase of nearly 40 percent from four years ago, and has been committed to widening access to students from all kinds of backgrounds.

“But within study abroad, unfortunately, the population going is very homogenous and does not look like who is enrolled in colleges today,” HenryHenry also is a faculty associate in the School of Politics and Global Studies and the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. said. “Our end goal is to make sure the population of students who go abroad looks like the same demographic as who’s enrolled at ASU."

The Planning Scholars program will be offering scholarships to 35 students every year, with 25 funded by the International Studies Abroad organization and 10 by ASU.

In the first few years, the ISA-funded scholarships provided $2,000 toward study-abroad costs for the semester or $1,000 for a summer trip, while the ASU awards were for $4,000.

But some students who received the smaller amounts were not using them, according to Kyle Rausch, assistant director of the Study Abroad Office, who launched the Planning Scholars program as part of his doctoral dissertation. So starting next fall, all the scholarships will be for $4,000.

The program provides more than money. All the scholars attend workshops covering topics such as how to find additional funding, choosing the right program and dealing with homesickness.

“We talk about the importance of finding a program that will fit within your major map because when I was doing my study focused on this population, I saw that they are concerned with getting in and getting out of college quickly,” Rausch said. “So we talk about how this can help them progress toward their degree.”

Most importantly, the Study Abroad Office now helps first-generation students to leverage their unique advantages. All of the scholarship winners go through StrengthsQuest, a personality assessment that highlights each person’s strengths.

Rausch said that in higher education, the assumption is often that first-generation students might need extra help because they lack skills or background knowledge because their parents didn’t go to college.

“This is a change from a deficit model to celebrating what they already have to succeed,” he said. “Because they do. They got to college on their own.

“We work with them to think about the challenges they’ll encounter and how they can rely on their strengths to get past those.”

Growth in self-confidence was a major outcome for the students who traveled, Rausch discovered in his research.

For example, students in the first group of Planning Scholars told Rausch that when tricky problems came up, they typically had to figure out the answers rather than relying on a call to their parents for help.

Catalina Lee said the sense of independence was hugely satisfying when she traveled to Prague in 2016.

ASU student Cody Holt

Cody Holt did an internship in Beijing in 2016 as part of the Planning Scholars program. He said he never thought he'd get to study in another country.

“The best part was the ability to take control of my time,” said Lee, a senior who visited Hungary, Austria and Poland, including the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial, while based in Prague for her international marketing course. “There were a lot of choices, and I really enjoyed that freedom.”

The Planning Scholars workshops were key to getting the most out of the trip for Lee, who was encouraged to set goals before she left and to reflect on the experience afterward.

“I already had a program in mind, but other students had no idea and they supported us in finding the best fit,” said Lee, who was born and raised in Tucson and has a double major in marketing and supply chain management and a minor in anthropology.

“It was important to me the think about study abroad as something more than flying somewhere in the world and having fun.”

As she prepares to graduate in May, Lee said that employers have been very interested in her experience.

“Sometimes students don’t think about how study abroad can affect job hunting,” she said.

Holt said that his study-abroad experience in China also is influencing his job search.

“Ultimately I’d like to work internationally and use my language skills to make a difference,” he said.

The Study Abroad Office offers more than 250 programs in more than 65 countries, and the Planning Scholars initiative is just one way the office has worked to diversify the population of students who travel. Some other ways are:

• Encouraging students to apply for Gilman scholarships. These national awards fund young people who qualify for the Pell grant and who might not otherwise consider study abroad — such as first-generation students, those with disabilities and underrepresented ethnic and demographic groups, including veterans and online students. Last year, ASU had 19 Gilman scholars, the most ever.

• Shorter programs, including “global intensive experience programs,” which are seven- to 10-day trips that are embedded as part of a semester course and occur over break or just after the semester. Students can use their financial-aid packages to pay for them.

• Revised deadlines so students can know whether they have funding before they have to commit to a trip.

ASU's Study Abroad Office has several information sessions scheduled. For details, click here. For information on Gilman scholarships, visit the Lorraine W. Frank Office of National Scholarships Advisement here.

Top image by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now