Back to School in the Age of Swine Flu

schoolbusAs families everywhere gear up for the back-to-school season, the Centers for Disease Control is preparing for a spike in the number of swine flu cases nationwide. The rate of infection is expected to climb as kids return to the cramped quarters of the classroom and we inch closer to traditional flu season.

Complicating matters is the fact that schools in most parts of the country open in late August or early September, while the first doses of vaccine effective against the H1N1 virus are not expected to be available until mid October. School children and pregnant women are likely to be among the first to receive the vaccine, which requires two separate doses, and CDC officials are planning school-based vaccination sites to streamline the process.

Add to this the normal seasonal flu lurking around the corner, and you can see the ingredients for lots of confusion and downright fear. What’s a mama to do? Here are some things the experts want you to know:

  • Most important, don’t panic. Though an up-tick in cases is expected, the illness so far seems to be reasonably mild in healthy individuals. Those with underlying chronic conditions or suppressed immune systems have been hit harder and may want to consider added precautions.
  • The illness is spread by contact with small respiratory droplets, usually from a cough or sneeze. If you’re close enough, these can land on you, but it’s more common to have hand contact with an infected surface (like a phone or another hand) and then touch your hand to your face, inviting the virus in.
  • Common symptoms are the same as those of any flu: fever, fatigue, cough, and achy muscles. Some people also develop sore throat, vomiting, or diarrhea.
  • The best way to prevent infection is frequent and thorough hand washing. You’ve probably heard that you need to wash hands with soap for as long as it takes to sing the ABC song. This is the time to really do it.
  • If you or your child develops flu symptoms STAY HOME. Don’t go to work, school, or travel until you are free of symptoms. We can’t repeat this enough. This is the #1 way to reduce spread of the virus. The #2 way is stay away from people and cough into your elbow if you DO have symptoms. Common surgical masks are not effective protection, though you may have seen people wearing them.
  • Though there’s no vaccine available yet, there are antiviral medicines that seem to be effective in severe cases, like Tamiflu and Relenza. These drugs should be started within 48 hours of when symptoms appear. They are NOT meant to be used as prevention, and widespread misuse may contribute to the development of resistant strains.
  • Most swine flu deaths have been caused by bacterial pneumonia that developed as a complication of the flu. Discuss with your doctor whether you should consider getting the pneumonia vaccine that protects against pneumococcus.

Information is power, so know the facts and follow recommendations to help protect your family. Don’t let the media hype make you nuts — the 24 hour news cycle has never saved a life.

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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.

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The Mama ButtonThe information provided by MamasOnCall is not intended as a substitute for professional advice, but is for information purposes only. You assume full responsibility for the health and well-being of your family. Talk with your healthcare provider about any questions you may have regarding a medical or psychiatric condition.