Any student can get a free flu shot at the Student Health and Wellness Center

During the 2009 outbreak of the H1N1 influenza virus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that 15-to 29-year-olds had 4.8 times the rate of infection as those older than 60, even though the elderly are usually regarded by health care providers to be most vulnerable to influenza infection.

This led to the CDC issuing an Infections Alert for Institutions of Higher Education and adding college students – particularly those who live in student housing – to the list of groups who should receive priority for yearly flu vaccinations. Previously, the list included the elderly, children ages 6 months to 18 years old, pregnant women and those of any age with certain chronic medical conditions.

Because past research has shown that flu vaccinations are not always effective, two University of North Texas health psychologists will examine whether insomnia – which affects approximately 10 to 15 percent of college students – decreases immune response to the influenza vaccine by examining antibody response in people with and without insomnia.

Does insomnia play a part?

Daniel Taylor and Kimberly Kelly, associate professors of psychology in UNT’s Clinical Health Psychology doctoral program, received a $442,838 grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a division of the National Institutes of Health, for the study.

“The underlying hypothesis here is that people with insomnia have poorer immune functions than people without insomnia,” says Taylor, who also is the director of UNT’s Sleep and Health Research Laboratory.

Taylor and Kelly plan to test that hypothesis with a three-year study. They will recruit 64 students through Nov. 7, and another 64 to participate during the 2012 fall semester. 32 students in each group must have insomnia, which he defines as difficulty sleeping several times a week despite having adequate opportunity to sleep, for at least three months.

Why insomnia is a problem

At any given time, one third of the general population has at least transient insomnia and 10 to15 percent of that population has chronic insomnia, which is the inability to sleep for more than three months.

“We know that sleep deprivation, at least acutely, can result in reduced immune function,” says Taylor. “But insomnia and sleep deprivation aren’t exactly the same thing.”

Kelly explained that people with sleep deprivation want to sleep, and would be able to if given an opportunity. People with insomnia are unable to sleep even with adequate opportunity. Taylor also noted that people with insomnia don’t particularly have excessive daytime sleepiness. Their neuropsychological function is virtually the same as people without insomnia. However, if insomnia becomes a chronic disorder it can act as a stressor on the immune system.

Help for insomniacs

Taylor says the next step in the research will be to offer cognitive behavioral therapy to individuals with insomnia. He wants to find out if treating insomnia patients would improve their immune function.

After students are accepted into the study, they receive a free physical and psychological evaluation from the Health and Wellness Center to check for any underlying medical conditions that might affect their ability to respond to a vaccine or lead to insomnia. From there, participants have their blood drawn to check antibody levels and then receive a free flu vaccine.

“When you get a flu vaccine, your immune system will form antibodies against the flu viruses with the idea that if you’re later exposed to the flu in the real world, your immune system is already primed to respond,” said Kelly.

How the study will work

During the week following the vaccination, participants will keep a sleep diary and wear a watch-sized activity monitor on their non-dominant hand. Four weeks after receiving the flu shot, participants will return to the clinic to have their antibody levels tested. All students who complete the study will receive $105 for their participation.

Kelly said they’re looking to see if insomnia lessened the body’s antibody response to the flu, meaning that the vaccination was less effective.

This year’s vaccine was developed based on the three most prominent strains found in Asia during winter 2010-2011, and includes the H1N1 strain responsible for the 2009 pandemic.

Get a free flu shot

For those not interested in the study, free flu shots are available for students at the Health and Wellness Center from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.  No appointment is needed.

Flu shots for faculty and staff will be available starting Oct. 17 as supplies last. Shots are $15 for faculty and staff, payable by cash or check.

Dr. Herschel Voorhees, Director of Clinical Services and Interim Director of the Health and Wellness Center, says offering flu shots contributes to better campus health. Immunizing students helps keep them healthy and in class, and helps reduce the spread of the flu.

Voorhees advises students to show up early in the week to get a flu shot. Last year, the Health and Wellness Center gave nearly 1,000 flu shots and exhausted their supply in two weeks. After the first week, Dr. Voorhees said there are about 600 doses left.

Besides adequate sleep and immunization, Voorhees says students should cover their coughs and sneezes, and frequently wash or sanitize their hands. He also said to try to avoid others who are sick, even if that is not always practical or possible. Kelly also suggested eating healthy and exercising.

Taylor and Kelly are recruiting students with insomnia until Nov. 7. If you are interested in participating, contact them prior to getting a vaccine at the Health and Wellness center because your antibody levels will need to be tested and recorded before you get your vaccine. Learn more or volunteer for the study or call 940-565-2837 to get more information.

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Students: get your free flu shot

  • Where: Student Health and Wellness Center
  • When: Monday through Thursday -- 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Friday -- 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
  • No appointment needed

Insomniacs needed: join the study

  • Contact Daniel Taylor and Kimberly Kelly at 940-565-2837 to see if you qualify
  • Receive a free physical and psychological evaluation from the Health and Wellness Center
  • Have your blood drawn to check existing flu antibody levels
  • Get a free flu vaccine
  • Keep a sleep diary and wear a watch-sized activity monitor for a week
  • Four weeks later, return to the clinic to have your antibody levels tested
  • Receive $105 for completing the study
  • Learn more about the study

How to prevent the flu

  • Get a flu shot
  • Get adequate sleep
  • Maintain healthy eating and exercise
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes
  • Frequently wash or sanitize your hands