Tampa Bay area students return to school this week. Likely joining them is a new and distinctly unwelcome menace: the H1N1 virus, known as swine flu. Local school districts have geared up to deal with the threat. However, limiting the spread of this virus will require the help of the entire community, from parents to their employers.
Health officials warned school administrators in Hillsborough County last week that student absentee rates from swine flu could reach 30 percent. Parents who hope Junior won't bring home the bug should send their kids off for the first day of school with hand sanitizer and instructions to wash their hands frequently with soap and water and avoid touching their faces, which spreads germs.
The federal government wants schools to remain open this fall, rather than closing, as they did last spring when even a few students became ill. Federal officials are asking that sick individuals quarantine themselves and adults learn the basics of swine flu care and prevention. Parents can find guidance on most local school district Web sites, along with links to valuable information from health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Unlike regular seasonal flu, this virus is especially tough on children and young adults. A swine flu vaccine will not be available until mid October. Even those immunized first will not have full immunity until mid or late November. That makes preventive efforts especially important. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke warned Wednesday that the pandemic "has the potential to affect every aspect of our lives."
Swine flu causes fever, body aches, sore throat, cough, runny or stuffy nose, fatigue and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting. People are contagious from one day before symptoms develop to up to seven days afterward.
People who have flu symptoms should stay home and call their doctor, who may prescribe anti-viral medication. According to the CDC and health departments, people who have had swine flu should not go back to school or work until they have been off fever-reducing medications and free of fever for at least 24 hours.
But that is likely to put a strain on working adults who don't get paid or fear losing their jobs if they call in sick or stay home with a sick child. Employers need to heed the request of federal officials that they ease absentee and sick policies for swine flu so workers will stay home when they should. Businesses can also allow employees to work from home or split shifts.
The return of pupils to the classroom always brings excitement and anticipation, but this year it also increases the entire community's exposure to an unfamiliar disease. Until vaccinations are widely available, the best defense against the H1N1 virus is individual efforts to help contain the disease. That means teamwork by schools, health officials, parents and employers.