Schools could be the front line in battle with swine flu; 1.1 million Kansans could be infected

Vaccine may not be ready until autumn

? As students across Kansas return to the classroom, state officials on Tuesday warned that schools will be a primary target of the fast-spreading swine flu epidemic.

All schools should have “sick rooms” to isolate students and staff with flu symptoms, and school officials should work with local health departments to set up what probably will be an unprecedented vaccine effort this fall, they said.

“All of us — parents, teachers, administrators — need to work very hard to keep schools open, and we have to be ready and have plans in place if they need to close, because that could happen suddenly,” said Dr. Jason Eberhart-Phillips, state health officer.

He said the H1N1 virus has spread rapidly and in unpredictable ways. “We really need to expect the unexpected,” he said.

Eberhart-Phillips urged renewed emphasis on hygiene and making sure that people who are sick stay home, and away from school or work.

“Well children belong in school, sick children belong at home,” he said.

Fast-spreading virus

The World Health Organization projects that 2 billion people worldwide, including 20 percent to 40 percent of the U.S. population, could be infected with the virus during the next two years. That means as many as 1.1 million Kansans could get infected if no vaccine were available.

Annually, 5 percent to 20 percent of the population gets the flu nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The H1N1 strain was first detected approximately four months ago and has spread to 160 countries. It has claimed at least 800 deaths, and unlike earlier pandemics, which have hit the elderly the hardest, this one is more concentrated among young people.

Swine flu cases have been confirmed in 46 of the 105 counties in Kansas, officials said. Twenty-three people have been hospitalized and one patient died.

A vaccine is currently being tested, but may not be ready for use until September or October.

“We’re gearing up for the immunization campaign of our lifetime,” Eberhart-Phillips said.

Concerns about preparation

After hearing from Eberhart-Phillips, several members of the State Board of Education voiced concerns over whether schools were prepared.

But Education Commissioner Alexa Posny tried to allay the concerns. “We’re not just sitting here waiting for something to happen,” she said.

One Education Board member, Kathy Martin of Clay Center, said some people may be reluctant to take the vaccine because they think human embryonic tissue was used to develop it. But Eberhart-Phillips said no human embryos were used in developing the vaccine.

Swine flu has spread during winter months in the Southern Hemisphere — our summer — and officials agree that is likely in the North America as the weather cools.

Symptoms of swine flu are similar to seasonal flu: a fever of more than 100 degrees, body aches, coughing, sore throat, respiratory congestion and, in some cases, diarrhea and vomiting.

Health officials recommend that people who have flu-like symptoms remain isolated until at least 24 hours after they are free of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications.

Local officials ready

Local school and health officials have met several times, including on Tuesday, to discuss strategies to contain the flu.

“I think we are right on top of it,” said Sonja Gaumer, nursing facilitator for Lawrence public schools. “We know this has been coming,” she said.

She said every school building will have an area designated for students who are sick, whether it is a room or the nurses’ office. She said schools also will be proactive in urging hand-washing, sanitizing highly used areas, and covering coughs.

She said the schools are willing to open their doors before or after school or on weekends, if needed, to provide time for immunizations.

Eberhart-Phillips said health officials now believe that schools should remain open during the pandemic unless drastic circumstances exist.

When swine flu cases were first reported in the spring, some schools across the nation shut down for weeks.

Eberhart-Phillips said health officials discovered that the students were simply socializing and congregating in different venues, so closing the schools didn’t stop the virus’ spread.