Theresa Spalding

Photo Credit: Aaron Rodriguez | Daily Texan Staff

The last week of school is often the most stressful for students, and a potential side effect of that stress is shingles, according to Theresa Spalding, University Health Services medical director.

Shingles, a skin rash caused by the same virus responsible for chicken pox that affects approximately 1 million people in the U.S. each year, is most common in adults older than 60, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website.

“[Shingles is] unusual in the younger-aged population, but we actually do see it a fair amount,” Spalding said. “We see it a lot with stress. That tends to bring it out.”

Since September, UHS has diagnosed 50 cases of shingles, which is near its average of 63 to 70 yearly cases since 2010, Spalding said. She said physical illness or mental stress can lower the body’s resistance to viruses.

Chris Sullivan, molecular biosciences associate professor, said a variety of genetic and environmental factors such as stress, diet or other infections can contribute to the virus.

Sullivan said people often don’t get shingles until later in life because many of them have had chicken pox, so their bodies have already developed an adaptive immune response.

Sullivan said, after someone has chicken pox, the virus remains dormant in that person’s body.

“It kind of crawls back into a neuron, and it’ll stay there the rest of your life, but, for some people, later in life … it crawls back out,” Sullivan said.

Devin Tayne, a history and art history senior who currently has shingles on her arm, said a doctor diagnosed her with the disease on Thursday, forcing her to take time off work to recover.

“Taking off so much work — that’s like $200-plus that I won’t be getting, so that’s stressful,” Tayne said. “Being the last week of school and not being able to work for such a long time is just adding stress. It’s funny — stress is what opened up the opportunity for me to get the shingles.”

Tayne said the virus has also made it difficult for her to type and drive.

“It kind of feels … like I pulled my muscles,” Tayne said. “It’s more of a really irritating pain more than anything.”

Despite this year’s flu season affecting younger and middle-aged adults more, officials at University Health Services, better known as UHS, say the number of influenza-related cases they treated this year are lower than last year.

Since January 2014, UHS reported 27 influenza-related cases compared to 99 cases reported at the same time last year, according to UHS Medical Director Theresa Spalding. Spalding said she hopes UHS’s flu shot campaign is helping keep the number of cases down.

“Hopefully, it’s just more of the students are taking more precautions and being more aware,” Spalding said.

At the end of February, the City of Austin reported 19 deaths from influenza, 11 of whom were under the age of 60. 

Influenza A (H3N2), 2009 influenza A (H1N1) and influenza B viruses have all been identified in the U.S. this flu season, with H1N1 viruses predominating, according to the Center for Disease Control. 

Philip Huang, medical director of the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, said the 2009 H1N1 does seem to affect younger adults, especially pregnant women and those with chronic conditions, more severely than other age groups because of their lack of exposure to similar strains.

“Typically, seasonal flu affects those that are older and the very young children more severely,” Huang said. “This particular strain is similar to some that have been seen in the past in that some of the older populations have developed some immunity to some of the H1N1 components.”

Undergraduate studies sophomore Bryan Luedecke said he got vaccinated early in the semester at UHS to avoid getting sick.

“I think vaccinations are extremely important because they not only protect you, the degree to which is debatable, but they also protect others from the flu,” Luedecke said. “If people aren’t getting vaccinated, it creates problems for you and those unvaccinated people around you.”

Members of UT’s Queer Students Alliance are working on legislation with the goal of convincing University administrators to expand health care benefits available for transgender students. 

Legislation author Devon Howard, women’s and gender studies junior, said the ultimate goal of the legislation is expanded medical services for transgender students, including hormonal treatments, gender reassignment surgeries and mental health counseling covered by the University.

“It’s really important that we address the needs of students and what they need to transition to not only feel comfortable with their body, but to be able to function and get a good education at the University,” Howard said. 

According to national nonprofit organization Campus Pride, many of UT’s peer universities, including the University of California system, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign cover hormone and gender reassignment services for students. 

UT does not offer these services because of the expenses associated with specialized medical care, according to Theresa Spalding, medical director for University Health Services. Spalding said the University does offer general medical care for all transgender students, including pap smears for students who identify as male, and said the University is committed to working with transgender students as much as possible.  

“It would be wonderful if we could provide all services to all patients, but we just don’t have the ability to do all that,” Spalding said. “Trying to be as gender neutral as possible is what we try to do.”

Spalding said the University does offer many resources for mental health to all students, including students who may be suffering from depression as a result of the stigmas associated with gender identity issues.

“Mental-health services wise, we have a lot that we offer,” Spalding said.

Currently, the insurance plan available for students to purchase, offered through Blue Cross Blue Shield, meets the minimum essential health requirements of the Affordable Care Act. Insurance coverage for one year is $1,432 per student. 

Adrienne Howarth-Moore, the director of Human Resource Services, said employee healthcare coverage does not include gender reassignment. 

“Certain treatments may be covered if the absence of that treatment would cause a decline in their physical health,” Howarth-Moore said. “Gender reassignment in general is not currently covered because that is currently not considered medically necessary.”

Marisa Kent, co-director of the Queer Students Alliance, said many students do not understand certain transgender students’ desire for sex-related surgeries.

“It’s not something most people can understand,” Kent said. “Nobody really understands the pain and the struggle [of] living in a body they feel like is not even their own.”

Howard said although some students may view gender reassignment surgeries as purely cosmetic, for some transgender individuals, medical intervention is a critical issue.  

“A lot of people see these surgeries as something that is elective and it’s not,” Howard said. “It’s something that needs to be done for survival.”

The alliance already passed a resolution for gender inclusive housing through Student Government, and Kent said she hopes SG members are equally receptive to the transgender health care benefits resolution. 

“We are definitely taking steps in the right direction, but transgender health benefits is our biggest focus,” Kent said. 

Once the resolution is  written, it will be sent to SG for a vote. If the resolution passes, it will be sent to the UT System Board of Regents, who are under no obligation to act.  

“It’s really problematic because we are ranked one of the most liberal and forward-thinking universities in the world, but we don’t have a lot of things other universities have,” Kent said. 

The alliance will hold a town hall meeting Feb. 19 at 6 p.m. in Room 420 in Waggener Hall for students to give their input on the resolution.

Update: This article has been clarified from the original version. Adrienne Howarth-Moore is the director of Human Resource Services, an office under University Operations which deals with employee health benefits.

October marks the beginning of flu season, accompanied annually by a flurry of sniffy noses and 100-degree fevers.

Starting Monday, University Health Services will offer flu shots to UT students, faculty and staff on select dates through Oct. 17.

The flu shot service is free for students who have insurance — except Health Maintenance Organization plans, plans with insurance companies based outside the U.S. and governmental plans — and faculty and staff who have UT Select insurance. Other students, faculty and staff can be vaccinated for $10.

Last year, UHS vaccinated a total of 5,400 students and 3,400 faculty and staff, according to Sherry Bell, UHS senior program coordinator, who is leading the flu shot campaign. 

Theresa Spalding, medical director at UHS, said she sees the most students come in after Thanksgiving and winter break, peaking in February. Spalding said the department’s strategy is to vaccinate as many students as possible to avoid the spread of the flu.

“If by chance, someone [is] exposed to the virus [after vaccination], they won’t get it and they won’t spread it,” Spalding said.

Rachel York, a youth and community studies junior, received a flu vaccine last year. York said she plans to get vaccinated again this fall.

“I used to always get the flu when I didn’t get the flu shot, and ever since I got the shot, I don’t get the flu so I make sure to get it,” York said. 

Business freshman Fariha Hossain said she gets vaccinated approximately every other year and plans to visit UHS sometime this week to get the flu vaccine.

“I have a really weak immune system,” Hossain said. “I get sick when the weather changes rapidly.”

Some students don’t believe the flu shot helps them avoid the flu.

“I only get it if I’m required to,” biology freshman Marcia Rondonuwu said. “In high school, I was in a premed program. Because I volunteered at a hospital, I was required to get a flu shot.”

Despite some students’ claims regarding the flu vaccine’s inefficiency, UHS said it offers the vaccines in the best interest of the students. 

“We’re here to keep students healthy so they can perform well academically and in their personal lives,” Bell said. “Getting a flu shot is the best way to prevent the flu.”

A full schedule of vaccination dates, information about the flu and flu symptoms can be found at healthyhorns.utexas.edu.

Along with the cold weeks of January comes the annual, unwelcome cedar pollen, which triggers allergies and cedar fever.

Cedar is a common allergen in Central Texas that contributes to Austin’s ranking in the top five worst cities for seasonal respiratory allergies, according to the website for University Health Services. UHS medical director Dr. Theresa Spalding said while seasonal allergies are not 100 percent preventable there are ways to lessen the body’s response to them. 

“Once you know it is the specific time of year you suffer from allergies, take allergy pills which will help ease your symptoms,” Spalding said.

The Forty Acres Pharmacy in the Student Services Building offers over-the-counter medicines as well as filled prescriptions to help cedar fever. For those who react to allergies more severely than the average person, Spalding said a sensitization shot allows for the body to be much less responsive to the cedar and other pollens. Spalding said, however, these treatments are no use without regular showers because the showers wash pollen off the body.

“While it is hard to predict exactly who will be affected, by taking the necessary precautions you are less likely to suffer and will fight off reactions to cedar pollen,” Spalding said.

There are a number of services on campus available to students who may be troubled by cedar fever, said Sherry Bell, senior program coordinator for the UHS. Bell said students should visit healthyhorns.utexas.edu to find out more about how to prevent seasonal allergies like cedar fever.

“Students can always call the UHS 24 hour advice line if they’re suffering from allergy symptoms and need self care advice or help determining if they need to see a health care provider,” Bell said. 

Because many are unfamiliar with cedar, often times UT students react quite severely to it, Bell said. 

“I find myself having to blow my nose every five minutes,” psychology sophomore Chris Gonzales said. “And it’s even worse in class when there is very little you can do to stop your nose from running or sneezing uncontrollably.” 

Update on Aug. 5, 3:30 p.m. - Headline has been changed to clarify study's findings.

To increase your chances of getting good grades in college, follow these steps: sleep in blue clothing with an open book under your pillow.

This is one example of a popular Brazilian ritual called a simpatia, a set of steps that some people believe can help them do a number of things, like finding a job or curing an illness.

To find out how people rate the effectiveness of a simpatia, a set of sequences that has no connection to the desired outcome, UT assistant psychology professor Cristine Legare and UT graduate student André Souza traveled to Brazil with funding from the University of Oxford’s Cognition, Religion and Theology Project, a program focused on cognitive development in religion, to research people’s evaluations of different simpatias. They found people’s understanding of rituals stems from how the human cognitive system works.

“Basically, what we are saying is that the characteristics that define rituals, rigidity of the action sequence, repetition of procedures and requirement of several steps reflect the way our cognitive system evolved,” Souza said. “Thus, we proposed that the way we evaluate the efficacy of rituals is very similar to how we evaluate and reason transparent actions.”

To quantify a simpatia, the team deconstructed a number of rituals to come up with three main aspects of a ritual that they could alter to observe the changes in a person’s view of the perceived effectiveness of the ritual.

“We manipulated a few dimensions we believed would influence the efficacy of rituals: presence of religious icons, number of steps and repetition of procedures,” Souza said. “We asked participants to read the rituals and rate their efficacy using a rating scale.”

For example, if a person wanted to find a partner, Souza said, the ritual starts off boiling a cup of water with apple pieces. When the mixture starts boiling, take the apple pieces out and wait for the water to cool down. Drink a little bit of the water and put the rest under an image of Saint Edwiges. Different people would be shown rituals like this with small variations. For example, one person might be shown the partner ritual without the image of Saint Edwiges.

“The results showed that information reflecting intuitive causal principles — repetition of procedures, number of procedural steps — and transcendental influence — presence of religious icons — affects how people evaluate ritual efficacy,” Souza said.

The study was conducted with 162 people from the southeast area of Brazil in the city of Belo Horizonte. It also included 68 people from the U.S., mostly from UT. Legare said they used public health centers to find subjects in Brazil. At UT, they found their participants from the undergraduate psychology subject pool.

“Even though we did not test people from other regions of Brazil, we know that the use of these recipes is very widespread in both rural and urban populations, and also that the level of education is not likely to influence that,” Souza said. “A reason to suggest that is the fact that we tested undergraduate students at UT and found pretty much the same results.”

Theresa Spalding, medical director for University Health Services, said while it is rare, UHS will sometimes prescribe alternative medicines to help patients.

“Alternative medicine does have scientific background and most of the drugs we manufacture come from natural herbs and remedies that are used in their raw form as alternative medicine,” Spalding said. “Stress relievers like meditation and talking therapy can also be used in conjunction with medicine, alternative or not.”

However, Spalding said rituals like the simpatias are off the table when it comes to treating patients.

“The simpatias are probably not something we would do, nor would be qualified as alternative medicine,” Spalding said.

Souza said when he was younger he would follow the simpatia to get better grades.

“Technically my mom would make me,” he said. “She would make me do it before exams. I don’t think it helped. My mom, on the other hand, thinks it was super effective.” 

State legislation passed in June 2011 requires all university students in Texas to provide meningitis vaccination documents to their institution by Jan. 31 or face being barred from class registration.

Meningitis is an infection that affects the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, or meninges. Because of how close to the brain and spinal chord the disease can occur, it can be potentially life threatening.

Dr. Theresa Spalding, University Health Services medical director, said this preventive measure is for the protection of students.

“While anybody can get the disease, it’s more common in some ages, including people in their late teens and early twenties,” Spalding said. “Densely populated environments can also increase the risk of transmission.”

The meningococcal meningitis vaccine is offered by UHS for $190 for students with health insurance and $133 for students without health insurance.

University officials allow some students to be exempted from this requirement, including those with serious allergic reactions to the vaccine, students who have turned 30 by the first day of the semester and students who present any religious reason.

Spalding said there are risks to all vaccines, but there is no known risk of serious harm or death resulting from getting the meningococcal vaccine.

Many students do not see this requirement as a problem.

Freshman business major Keyana Hemyari said while she doesn’t care for needles, she would rather get a shot than deal with the possible consequences of contracting something as dangerous as meningitis.

“It’s really no issue,” Hemyari said. “I really hate shots but I’ve been told how dangerous meningitis can be, so I will gladly take the shot over getting the infection.”

Spalding said the chance for treating and surviving meningitis with no permanent damage is rare once it is already contracted.

Approximately 10 to 15 percent of people who get the meningococcal disease will die even if they get treated, and 11 to 19 percent of survivors will lose fingers, toes, arms or legs. People with meningitis are also at risk of permanent nervous system problems including seizures, diminished cognitive abilities and hearing loss.

Newly admitted students to UT are not required to submit documentation as part of their admission process, but non-compliance will prevent students from registering for classes, according to University Health Services website.

Because students living on campus were required to show proper documentation of their immunizations before moving in at the start of the term, they will not be affected by the Jan. 31 deadline.

Laurie Mackey, administrative services director with the Division of Housing and Food Services, said all students will need to comply with this state-mandated law.

“If they do not have their vaccine and are not allowed to attend school, they may no longer live on campus,” Mackey said.

Although the city of Austin has managed to stay clear of wildfires, the air above it has not escaped unscathed.

Clouds of smoke rolled into the city Tuesday and Wednesday morning, causing some to become concerned about air quality and breathing conditions. Geological sciences professor Kerry Cook said winds from Tropical Storm Lee, which blew through Louisiana, brought smoke from the Bastrop fires as they drifted to the southwest. As of press time, firefighters have contained 30 percent of the Bastrop blaze that began Sunday and burned approximately 43,000 acres and 785 homes and caused two fatalities.

Tropical storm winds did not bring smoke from fires burning to the west of Austin in the Lake Travis area, such as the Steiner Ranch fire that damaged and destroyed more than 50 homes. Travis County Fire Chief Jim Linardos said crews have contained 75 percent of the Steiner Ranch fire as of Wednesday and expect to have it under full control by Thursday.

“As I look out my window, I can see smoke over the city,” Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said. “We’re getting a lot of calls concerning the issue, but it is only a result of the winds dying down, and we have no fires in the city.”

Cook said smoke appearing Wednesday morning could also be associated with a temperature inversion, in which cooler temperatures do not allow the smoke to rise.

“This is just like when pollution is trapped above the city in L.A.,” Cook said. “The smoke doesn’t reach up into the atmosphere, and the winds are in the direction to bring that downtown.”

Theresa Spalding, University Health Services associate director, said drifting smoke is a greater concern to people living in places directly impacted by the recent wildfires because the possibility of soot and ash inhalation is greater in these areas. Spalding said lingering smoke in Austin may cause respiratory irritation or minor headaches, but symptoms will not appear as strongly as they would in residents of directly affected areas. Austin residents with asthma may feel stronger symptoms and should limit outdoor activity if necessary, she said.

“Some people are asking about masks,” Spalding said. “We have gotten calls about that. The masks you can get [at stores] are more about trying to keep large particles out of your passageways. We aren’t recommending masks to people just walking around campus.” 

Printed on September 8, 2011 as: Tropical storm ushers winds from windfires into local area