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With brochures, hand sanitizer and more, universities preparing for swine flu

Brightly colored posters urge Arizona State University students to cover coughs with tissues or sleeves. Northern Arizona University’s computer labs now feature hand sanitizer dispensers. Freshmen settling into University of Arizona dorms received pamphlets urging them to stay away from class if they have aches or fever.

With tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff in close proximity, Arizona’s universities are taking these and other steps to prepare for swine flu’s next assault.

“We are anticipating that there will be a major outbreak of influenza probably not long after students return to campus and start mixing,” Dr. Timothy Fleming, medical director of NAU’s Fronske Health Center, said during a telephone interview. “Not many people under the age of 24 have natural antibodies for this particular virus.”

Fleming said students checking into NAU dormitories received information sheets outlining the most common symptoms of the H1N1 virus. The university has installed hand sanitizer dispensers in classrooms and dormitories as well as computer labs, he said.

Science advisers to President Barack Obama warned this week that the H1N1 virus could infect nearly half of population beginning this fall and cause up to 90,000 deaths, twice the number normally associated with seasonal flu.

With the virus expected to be especially harmful to children and young adults, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging schools to be ready. Its guidelines include includes having sick students stay home, encouraging hand-washing and other proper hygiene and regular cleaning of surfaces that students and staff touch.

Officials at Arizona’s three public universities said they are following those guidelines and relying on plans that can expand depending on the severity of an outbreak.

ASU is providing regular updates and tips through a Web site titled “Pandemic Influenza Center” and through students’ individual intranet pages.

Dr. Allan Markus, ASU’s director of student health, said the school is encouraging students to go home if possible should they fall ill and stay in their dorms if they can’t. The university’s plan includes delivering meals to sick students in dorms and making sure they can stay in virtual contact with professors.

“We’re saying, ‘Please don’t come to class,’” Markus said in a phone interview.

On ASU’s Tempe campus, freshman Shay McGrady said she hadn’t seen any literature or signs about the flu since moving into her dorm but wasn’t worried.

“People are making a big deal out of it, and it’s just the flu,” she said. “If people just wash their hands and take the steps they would to avoid any other flu it won’t be a problem.”

The UA’s plan includes promoting discussions about swine flu in dorms and upgrading to a disinfectant that more effectively kills the flu virus in areas likely to harbor it, such as door handles and countertops, said Johnny Cruz, the school’s director of media relations, said in a phone interview.

Should a widespread outbreak occur, Cruz said, the university will rely on a detailed plan that includes quarantines, decontamination of essential buildings and expanding medical facilities.

“It’s a fully scalable plan that can be adapted if it’s a minor issue or a widespread national, international pandemic,” Cruz said.

- Reporter Alexander Maclean contributed to this story.

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