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Students’ risks increase as flu season approaches

By Linda Breazeale
MSU Ag Communications

MISSISSIPPI STATE – The initial impact of the H1N1 flu virus on communities was minimal last spring as schools were preparing to dismiss for the summer, but health officials warn that may not be the case this fall and winter.

Jane Clary, health specialist with Mississippi State University’s Extension Service, said in the months since the initial outbreaks were detected, the virus has grown to become an official pandemic, a disease outbreak that spans the world.

Influenza becomes an issue in schools every winter, but the increased threat of a pandemic flu demands more efforts to minimize the spread of germs. Clary said schools need to make sure they have a good supply of paper towels and soap. If soap is not available, schools should provide alcohol-based hand gels. Plenty of tissues should be provided in each classroom, and students need to be encouraged to cover their noses and mouths when sneezing.

“This strain of pandemic influenza may be much more contagious than seasonal flu. Most people do not have any immunity to this virus strain,” she said. “A major outbreak can cause social and economic disruptions, including school and daycare closings.”

Clary said efforts are under way to develop a vaccine for the H1N1 virus in addition to the seasonal flu vaccine that will be available in the fall. The H1N1 vaccine is expected to be primarily for high-risk populations, which may include people with compromised immune systems, the young, and individuals working with at-risk groups.

Art Sharpe, director of emergency planning and response with the Mississippi Department of Health, said preparedness and education are the department’s primary messages.

“The most important thing we can do is to educate school officials about the virus and how to protect themselves, their students and their families,” Sharpe said. “People need to be aware of how viruses spread and should work to reduce the spread of any communicable illness.”

Sharpe said organizations were very cautious when the initial H1N1 reports developed in Mexico last spring.

“Health organizations had been preparing for something like H1N1 to come out of Asia for years, so we were somewhat surprised when it occurred practically in our backyard,” he said. “There were a lot of unknowns, and still are, about how deadly and how communicable it would be. Fortunately, it arrived in the United States late in the school year. Social distancing and good hygiene practices probably helped reduce the impact.”

Sharpe said health officials are approaching the upcoming season with caution.

“The virus is serious, but it is not as deadly as we were afraid it might be,” Sharpe said. “We still encourage seasonal flu vaccines when they become available, and people should consult their doctor for H1N1 vaccine recommendations.”

During a pandemic, Sharpe said school closings may occur, but those would be a last resort. Before taking that step, school districts would probably discontinue sporting events and other large gatherings.

“Anyone who is sick should be encouraged to stay home. Unfortunately, a person could be contagious before any symptoms appear,” Sharpe said. “People with flu-like symptoms should call their doctor’s office first because the offices may have special ways to see potential flu cases.”

Schools will need plans for staying in touch with staff and students homebound by the flu when an outbreak occurs.

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Released: July 9, 2009
Contact: Dr. Jane Clary, (662) 325-5014