Flu shots now available
The youngest students in Grady County have been hardest hit by the H1N1 flu virus in recent days with schools reporting a high level of absentees. School system leaders are communicating daily with health officials to keep them abreast of just how many youngsters are affected here, and are following their advice in the schools on how to handle this regional pandemic.
Elementary schools here are reporting the most absences, with Southside School topping that list at 12 percent of the student population absent Tuesday. Attendance at other schools Tuesday is also concerning: Shiver School, 9.6 percent absent; Northside School, 8.6 percent; Cairo High School, 6 percent; Eastside School, 5.8 percent; Whigham School, 4.2 percent; and Washington Middle School, 3.5 percent.
Although rumors were rampant that schools may be closed because of the flu, Dr. Tommy Pharis, superintendent of Grady County Schools, says that possibility has not been considered yet. “If we get to that point, it will be a joint decision between the (Grady County) Health Department and us based on the latest protocol from the CDC and the District Health Department,” Pharis says. He said factors that would contribute to such a decision include the number of students and teachers affected by the virus, and the impact on the community should the schools close.
School nurses have been overrun with students sent their way by watchful teachers, wary of keeping an infected student in the classroom. Pharis says any child running a fever will be sent home from school. Older students who are fever-free at least 24 hours may return to school. However, younger students are asked to stay home at least five to seven days, especially those five years and younger.
With so much absenteeism, teachers and administrators are concerned about it affecting their ability to teach effectively, and reach required Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) benchmarks. “It makes it tough on teachers and kids,” Pharis says.
And, this may not be the worst of it. “District health folks say it’s not really hit us yet,” Pharis reports.
Meanwhile, schools are emphasizing personal hygiene: hand washing with soap, coughing into shirtsleeves instead of hands; reminding students to keep their hands away from their eyes, nose and mouth. Also, some classrooms have eliminated the common crayon box that all students share.
Another way to combat the spread of the pandemic H1N1 virus is to get a seasonal flu shot, which is now available at the Grady County Health Department, and will also be available at various other locations such as pharmacies and physician’s offices.
The health department is offering the shot roughly a month earlier than usual, and at a reduced price of $20. “We are offering seasonal flu vaccine earlier than usual and cutting the cost to help encourage residents to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” says Southwest Health District Health Director Dr. Jacqueline Grant.
A seasonal flu shot offers no protection against H1N1 infection, but it will help prevent co-infections, Grant explains.
“When an individual is infected with more than one virus, it is an opportunity for the viruses to exchange genetic material. That could lead to creation of a more severe virus, or one that is resistant to drugs,” she said.
While the novel H1N1 virus has been getting the most attention, especially since it achieved pandemic status in June, seasonal flu itself can cause significant illness.
“Remember, seasonal flu claims around 36,000 lives and results in around 200,000 hospitalizations in the United States each year,” Grant said. “Now, with H1N1, we may be faced with four or more different circulating flu strains.”
So far, she said, H1N1 has been mild to moderate. “However, we are already seeing high absenteeism and crowded emergency rooms and doctors’ offices throughout the district, and the regular flu season hasn’t started yet,” noted Grant. “Patients who get seasonal flu shots are less likely to end up with complications requiring hospitalization and medical attention from physicians. So that can help reduce pressure on the healthcare system, caregivers and others.”
Vaccine for H1N1 is being produced, but won’t be available until mid-October at the earliest, she said. It is likely to be administered in two doses.
This year’s seasonal flu vaccine contains three virus strains that researchers anticipate will cause the most illness during the flu season. They are A/Brisbane/59/2007 (H1N1)-like virus; A/Brisbane/10/2007 (H3N2)-like virus and B/Brisbane 60/2008-like antigens. “The 2009-10 influenza vaccine is intended to protect you from getting sick from these three viruses, or make your illness milder if you get a related but different influenza virus strain,” Grant explained.
Anyone who wants to reduce the chance of catching the seasonal flu can get vaccinated. But certain populations face greater risk of developing serious complications from influenza and Public Health experts recommend they be vaccinated. They include:
Children aged 6 months to 19 years;
People 50 and older?
People of any age with chronic medical conditions like asthma or heart disease;
People who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities;
People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications from flu, including:
Household contacts of persons at high risk for complications from the flu
Household contacts and out of home caregivers of children less than 6 months of age (children too young to be vaccinated).
Those who should talk to their doctor before getting a flu shot include anyone who has had a severe allergic reaction to eggs or a previous flu shot, a history of Guillain-Barré Syndrome or is running a fever, Grant added.
She said that influenza usually starts suddenly and may include fever (usually high), cough, sore throat, headache, fatigue, runny or stuffy nose and body aches. Diarrhea and vomiting may also occur and are usually more common in children than adults.
“Remember, this year it is more important than ever to get your seasonal flu vaccination,” Grant said.