With the school year almost over, health officials are hoping that swine flu takes a summer vacation. But they're bracing for the possibility that it could keep striking children this summer.
Unlike seasonal flu, which tends to target seniors and young children, most swine flu cases have been diagnosed in school-aged children and young adults. Scientists are puzzling over this pattern, but think one reason is that the virus has been passed around mostly in schools. That's why some have hoped the end of the school year could ease the situation.
But kids also hang out together during the summer, in recreation programs, camps, the mall and at vacation destinations.
"We would love to see a decrease in cases, and to see the end of these outbreaks that are affecting schools," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, interim deputy director for science and public health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "But my influenza expert colleagues tell me, there have been influenza outbreaks in camps … so we really need to be alert to that possibility."
Tampa Bay area public health officials have been working with school districts and other community organizations to get out the word. Jeannine Mallory, a Pinellas County Health Department spokeswoman, said she has heard anecdotally that parks and summer camps are gearing up with extra hand sanitizer and hygiene lessons for children.
The Hillsborough County Health Department has sent out thousands of flu-prevention fliers in English and Spanish that could be sent home with children or posted in public areas, according to spokesman Steve Huard.
One flier gives parents tips for protecting their children, including staying away from people who are sick, cleaning their hands often and keeping their hands away from their faces. Another flier is titled "Cover your Cough."
Swine flu's tendency to strike children, teens and young adults is clear locally. Of the 11 confirmed cases in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, nine have involved people ages 5 to 24. The other two involved adults ages 25 and 27.
The experts aren't sure why this flu is striking the young, but they have theories.
Dr. Schuchat says one thing the CDC has learned through other infectious diseases is that children are very good at transmitting them. "They have lots of social contacts, and in particular, younger children may shed the virus for a longer time," Schuchat said during a CDC briefing earlier this week.
Another theory is that older adults may have some protection against the virus due to previous exposure to a related virus. Plus, it may take longer for the virus to make its way into the senior population since many older people aren't exposed to younger flu patients, Schuchat said.
When the school year ends in the coming days, thousands of Hillsborough kids will flock to one of the county's 43 centers that house summer camp programs.
Parks, recreation and conservation spokesman John Brill said the department has been getting updates from public health officials, it has sent out fliers with hygiene tips, and centers have stocked up on hand sanitizer. Brill said that when the CDC had initially recommended closing schools that had confirmed cases of swine flu, the parks department was ready to close recreation and community centers that served those school populations, and can do so in the future if needed.
"They'll be ready," he said.
Richard Martin can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330. For the latest in health news, visit tampabay.com/health