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Friday, September 11, 2009

College football teams tackling swine flu

Helmets and shoulder pads — and hand sanitizer.

College football players are protecting themselves from more than bruising hits and tackles this season. Swine flu can flatten them, too.

With outbreaks reported at the universities of Mississippi and Wisconsin, players are under orders to wash their hands and cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze, lest their teams join those who have been hit hard by the bug.

"After the first couple of cases, when people got sick on campus, me and my roommates, we went and got a big bottle of disinfectant," said Ole Miss running back Brandon Bolden, who lives with two teammates. "And as soon as we walk into our house, we have hand sanitizer."

Coaches are fretting the possibility of having to play games short-handed.

"It scares us to death," Texas coach Mack Brown said.

Swine flu hasn't been a problem for the Longhorns so far, but the list of teams affected has been growing steadily.

At Duke, in Durham, N.C., one player had a confirmed case of swine flu in early August, about a month before the season started last weekend. School officials said two or three dozen players experienced flu symptoms and it took about 10 days to get healthy.

Tulane, in New Orleans, cleared 27 players with mostly mild symptoms to return to practice about a week before the Green Wave opened their season with a loss to Tulsa.

Washington State had 16 players get sick before its home opener Saturday — a loss to Stanford — amid a larger flu outbreak at the school. The university placed hand sanitizers at concession stands for the game, which drew just 22,386 fans — about 5,500 fewer than last year's opener.

Mississippi and Wisconsin have been dealing with seriously depleted rosters at practice this week as player after player has come down with the fever, coughing, body aches and sore throats that are symptoms of the H1N1 virus.

Swine flu spreads the same way seasonal flu does, from an infected person sneezing or coughing near other people or touching objects. People inhale the virus or pick it up by touching an infected person or object and then putting their hands to their own nose or mouth.

In Oxford, Miss., the number of Rebels to miss practice with flu symptoms was up to 30 by Thursday. That includes star quarterback Jevan Snead and top running back Dexter McCluster. The number of cases among the entire student body was approaching 400.

The Rebels caught a break, however, because they are off this week and on Sept. 19 play Southeastern Louisiana, which is in a lower division.

In Madison, Wis., at least 10 players were dealing with flu symptoms, and university officials say about 200 students sought medical attention the first week of school. Coaches have been tightlipped about which players have been affected and if any will miss Saturday's home game against Fresno State.

In Tuscaloosa, Ala., Stillman College, which plays Division II football, had to cancel its opener last week against Clark Atlanta because 37 players had flu-like symptoms.

Georgia safety Makiri Pugh tested positive and missed the first game against Oklahoma State. He expects to play Saturday against South Carolina and said the illness was "not a big deal."

The larger problem could be that Pugh's teammates were likely exposed to the virus before playing in Stillwater, Okla., so now the Cowboys might have been exposed, too.

Health officials say football players shouldn't be at any more risk from swine flu than other students, assuming they take precautions such as washing their hands and staying home when they feel sick so they don't infect others.

But football players spend a lot of time together, and there are other factors that might contribute to swine flu spreading through a team, said Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University flu expert.

Football players are not famous for their cleanliness — the spread of bacterial infections is a noted locker room problem. And the idea of staying home with flu symptoms doesn't fit the sport's tough culture.

Scholarships are predicated on showing up for practice and performing well in games, and full participation is equated with "not letting the team down," Schaffner noted.

"There is some conflict with the public health message," Schaffner said.

But school officials around the country say they are following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and isolating sick students for 24 to 48 hours even after their symptoms clear up. A vaccine for the swine flu will not be available until next month.

Georgia head athletic trainer Ron Courson said he included swine flu prevention in his preseason talk with players, a seminar that usually hits on topics such as heat illness and injury prevention.

Every Georgia player and coach has received a fact sheet about the H1N1 virus so they can better recognize symptoms and get treated quickly. And each player got his own small bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

The infection can be treated with drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza, but Courson said he has steered away from using them on football players because the vast majority are not in the high-risk groups — small children and those with pre-existing medical conditions — for whom swine flu can lead to more serious illness, even death.

Rest, drinking fluids and maybe some Tylenol or ibuprofen are what Courson would order for a sick student-athlete.

Coaches, meanwhile, are just hoping that an All-American won't fall ill for the big game.

"That's all half-luck," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said, "and we just hope that if we do get a case or two that it will be isolated — and at this point, knock on wood, we're among the fortunate ones that haven't gone through it — and hope that it doesn't happen at the worst time with the wrong players."

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