Schools ready for swine flu?

Soon after kids return to school, in the coming few weeks, we may see  the H1N1 swine flu come back with sudden swiftness.  That’s based on what’s happened during past pandemics, such as in 1957, and on the virus’ behavior in the southern hemisphere.  Are the schools ready?

It’s hard to tell.  They basically are continuing where they left off when the first wave of sickness passed through last spring.

My colleague, Jennifer Wing, reports on discussions between Public Health Seattle & King County and school districts.  They don’t plan to close schools this time, and sick kids won’t have to stay home for as long (it was a full week last spring).  But, from what we’ve heard so far, it doesn’t seem like anyone’s making contingency plans for absentee rates that might range in the 30-50% range.

The Virus: H1N1

The Virus: H1N1

Epidemiologists are concerned with getting timely updates on the numbers of absent students.  This is essential for monitoring when and where outbreaks are happening, and last spring some schools were better than others about reporting.

Don’t be surprised if outbreaks begin as early as September.  The evidence keeps mounting that wherever kids congregate in large numbers, that’s where you’ll see rapid transmission of flu virus.  In 1957, it took just 3-6 weeks after school started before  many cities saw a surge of illness.

What about a vaccine, to prevent illness?  The first doses may not be available until after the first wave of sickness.  But, there may be additional outbreaks long into winter, and the vaccine will protect against those.

On the other hand, swine flu infections still appears to be mild, unless you have an underlying sickness or medical condition.

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Swine flu, the mystery

Everyone’s talking about swine flu. Every major news organization has done a decent job covering the basics. Here are a few extras, based on what I’ve learned so far:

  • We won’t know for a week or longer if this is indeed a serious pandemic or not. The information from Mexico is still too incomplete to tell us if the flu there is killing an unusual number of healthy young adults. It appears to be unusal, and that’s what has public health leaders around the world worried. But that appearance may prove false, once we get more data. They’re handling it with “an abundance of caution,” says King County’s chief epidemiologist Jeff Duchin. (For example, they may not be getting an accurate measure of how many people are infected with mild cases of swine flu, and that number is key to telling you what percentage are severe cases.)
  • In British Columbia, two cases of swine flu were confirmed over the weekend. Both were men who were returning from Mexico. Both cases were considered “mild” (in which case, I’m not sure how they were detected).
  • It would take six months or longer to create a vaccine. In the meantime, for those who do get sick, a drug called Tamiflu can effectively treat the disease. A stockpile is on hand, in King County and elsewhere, to deliver Tamiflu in the event this does become a major epidemic. The stockpile would be used primarily for police, fire and medical workers.
  • “What should I do?” In most cases, nothing. Public health officials say, if you are sick enough that you think you need medical attention, then call your doctor’s office. But, don’t just show up. And if you’re mildly ill and wouldn’t normally seek medical attention, then don’t seek it now. (But do take the usual precautions, such as covering your coughs, handwashing, etc.)