Between dorms, dining halls, parties and social clubs, everything about attending a university is communal – including many illnesses. And with COVID-19 still surging across the country, all eyes are on college campuses.

smiling teen boys and girlsPresenters at a Tuesday morning Annual Meeting session, “College Initiatives for Preventing Illness,” underscored the importance of using proven preventive measures and leveraging technology to communicate with university students.

Immunizations are one way to keep students healthy and prevent disease outbreaks, with university vaccine requirements playing a significant role in whether students receive them. For example, a vaccine for meningitis B, a commonly spread bacterial infection, was made available in 2014.

However, it’s not required by many universities and without a mandate, vague recommendation language may not be enough to get students to opt in to the life-saving vaccine, said Alicia Stillman, founder of the Emily Stillman Foundation, which launched in 2014 to preserve the memory of her daughter, who tragically passed away from meningitis B.

“The devil is in the details,” said Stillman, noting that the national Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ recommendation on meningitis B immunization only says students “may” receive the vaccine.

Unfortunately, gaps in vaccine awareness are common, especially on college campuses. Casey Daniel, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of South Alabama, and her colleagues conducted focus groups with students about human papillomavirus, or HPV, and its vaccine. But despite it being the most common sexually transmitted infection and a cause of cervical cancer, “students had overall really low awareness and knowledge of HPV and the vaccine,” Daniel reported.

However, the rise and popularity of social media, especially among university students, presents a unique opportunity to promote healthy behaviors. Peijia Zha, an assistant professor at Rutgers School of Nursing, conducted an intervention study with university students in China. Educational messages about HIV/AIDS were promoted on the popular social media platform WeChat and were found to be effective in reducing the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.

“We believe this kind of technology-based intervention is effective and can be integrated into a college,” Zha told attendees.

The big takeaways? As universities manage COVID-19, timely studies and proven methods will be key in shaping decisions. Universities should aim to leverage technology and carefully word health communications to promote healthy behaviors.

Photo by Franckreporter, courtesy iStockphoto