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Schools urge calm, planning for swine flu

on September 6, 2009

As tens of thousands of children in North Oakland returned to school this week, local health officials and school districts were already bracing for the upcoming flu season, said Alameda County Public Health Department spokesperson Sherri Willis.

“For the first time ever, we have two strains of flu and two vaccines to deal with. That would be a tall order even if one of those wasn’t a pandemic,” Willis said, referring to the swine flu virus, which since the school year began has already infected students nationally.

“The virus is now fully integrated into the community,” Willis said. “It is not an issue of containment, but mitigation.”

The Oakland Unified School District is taking a “proactive approach” to prepare schools for the virus, said the school district’s spokesman Troy Flint.  A swine flu vaccination will not be available until later in the fall, and as yet there is no plan to require the vaccination in the schools, Flint said. But a district-wide campaign is underway to raise awareness of the risks of swine flu, and also to prepare parents, students and school staff for the upcoming general flu season.

Since school began last Monday, the district has updated its multilingual website three times already, to keep parents and teachers informed about the importance of keeping children at home if they show flu symptoms. This year the health department recommends a seasonal flu vaccination for all children, aged six months to 18 years old, Willis said.

“We’ve built on the practice run we had last year,” said Flint, whose office has received ten swine-flu information requests from principals over the last two weeks. “We have been fortunate that that there were no school closures in our district last year, but we are not resting on our laurels,” he said.  “The biggest challenge is making sure people have up-to-date information, without giving them message fatigue.”

The beginning of the school year often puts health agencies on alert for contagious illnesses like flu, which spread rapidly in confined, crowded environments, such as schools. It is made worse this year by the two influenza strains expected to hit in the coming months: swine flu and seasonal  flu. “We know that young children are efficient carriers of germs–they simply don’t pay much attention to hygiene,” Willis said. “The risk of spreading germs is amplified in communal settings – like schools, day cares, and camps.  The only difference among these settings is the volume of kids, and therefore a heightened risk of more germs.”

This is further exacerbated in the chilly winter months, when everyone becomes more susceptible to flu, said a report published by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology last week. The report said that this fall and winter, as many as half the population of the U.S. could show symptoms of swine flu, which is more formally called the H1N1 virus.

So far, 15,000 Oakland Unified School District information packs have been distributed to all parents and teachers in the district. The leaflets contained advice on good hygiene practice and aim to keep schools open, which should make parents like Linda Fogel happy.

“For parents, what happens if the school is closed is almost a bigger disruption to your life than if your own child is sick,” said the Oakland Tech PTA co-president  and mother of two.

The health department’s Sherri Willis agreed that school closure should be a last resort.  “The end of last [school] year [April – June] was awash with school closures nationally,” she said, adding that the medical guidance during that time was very strict.  “We now know that most cases are mild and treatable at home.   We don’t have to close the schools, just separate the sick kids from the healthy.”

She added that the department is encouraging parents to think in advance about alternative care arrangements if their child does become sick, and to contact principals or teachers if parents believe a child’s classmate is sick.

The health department has advised school superintendents to do visual screenings of children and teachers for signs of sickness when they arrive at school. Anyone showing signs the flu should then be separated from their peers, said Willis.

Another measure parents can consider is the swine flu vaccine, currently being tested, and which Willis said should be available nationally by mid-to-late October.  The shot will be given in two doses, three to four weeks apart. The Alameda  County Health Department will first vaccinate high-risk groups already identified by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).

According to the CDC , the swine flu vaccination target groups right now are pregnant women, children from six months  to 18 years old, and people with chronic health conditions.

Willis urges parents to think about obtaining flu vaccinations before the height of the traditional flu season, which generally runs from December through to March.   Both seasonal and H1N1 vaccinations should be received before the flu season begins as it takes two weeks after the shots are given to develop full immunity, Willis aid.

Since April, 115 H1N1 deaths in California have been attributed to swine flu,.   Eleven deaths and 109 hospitalizations in Alameda County have been recorded as linked to the disease.

With the World Health Organization reporting August 28 that swine flu is “now the dominant influenza strain” in most of the world, and advising that countries in the Northern Hemisphere, “should prepare themselves for a second wave,” North Oakland’s schools are part of a much larger global trend.

Despite the fears, Fopel, mother of two, said she was not overly anxious about the virus.

“I asked my daughter if the kids were talking about it at school,” she said. “No, she said. But our gym teacher did tell us to wash our hands.”

For Willis this is a good sign.

“If nothing else, awareness-raising will make people more aware of hygiene issues,” Willis said. “That’s always a good thing.”

Links: Oakland Unified School District – Swine Flu Guidelines Center for Disease Control and Prevention US government

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