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Schools, hospital monitoring flu cases

An increase in the number of people experiencing flu-like sickness has health and school officials on guard to keep any illness from spreading.

There have been no confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus (previously called swine flu) in Decatur County, although sick teachers and students are being treated as if they did have the virus to help control the spread of illness, according to the Southwest Georgia Public Health Department. Two people—one adult and one child—were admitted to Memorial Hospital for flu-like symptoms last week, said Jane Chesser, a registered nurse and infection preventionist with Memorial Hospital.

Memorial Hospital’s laboratory has seen a significant increase in the number of people—especially children—whose doctors have ordered them to take an outpatient rapid screening test for seasonal influenza viruses, Chesser said. Memorial Hospital’s two lab testing locations have been seeing a steady stream of children wearing medical face masks given to them by doctors to wear as a health precaution.

There have been a higher-than-normal number of absences in the Decatur County school system, though school officials aren’t sure whether illness is directly to blame, School Superintendent Ralph Jones said Monday.

“Public Health has been working closely with school systems, many of which are reporting incidents of flu-like illness,” Dr. Jacqueline Grant, director of the Southwest Georgia Health District said in a news release. “Pandemic H1N1 is in our district, so we are not surprised to see clusters popping up as schools reopen for the fall.”

Chesser said Memorial Hospital first noticed a trend of people experiencing flu-like symptoms during the first week of August, and said the number has increased since the school year began on Aug. 7.

“[The rapid screening tests] are generally not really reliable, but we have been seeing a lot of people, about 60 percent, test positive for influenza A,” Chesser said. “At this time of the year, seeing flu-like symptoms in so many people is highly suspicious.”

Jones: Schools ‘on top of situation’

School officials dispelled a rumor circulating that children who took ill with flu-like symptoms would have to stay at home for seven days—not true, Jones said Monday.

Jones said school officials are following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Southwest Georgia Health District on how to prevent and limit the spread of influenza-like illness. Currently, the CDC is recommending that anyone with a flu-like illness stay at home for 24 hours after the last sign that fever is subsiding without the use of fever-reducing medicine. However, any ill persons who work in a health care setting are being asked to isolate themselves for up to seven days until feeling better.

Jones said health recommendations were sent out to parents and guardians as part of a back-to-school information packet. They’re being asked to keep children with fever at home and everyone involved with the schools are being made aware of how to sanitize themselves against germs. Meanwhile, school janitors are continuing to use a disinfectant chemical on surfaces like bathrooms and door handles to help eradicate any flu viruses, Jones said.

While parents are generally encouraged to help their children have good attendance, Jones said the potential for flu or H1N1 creates a special concern.

“We don’t want to create more problems by sending sick kids to school, so we’re playing it safe and monitoring the situation,” he said.

Health officials: Flu severity varies

There have been 7,511 hospitalized cases of H1N1 flu across the United States and its territories, and 477 deaths from the virus, according to the CDC. In Georgia, there have been 74 hospitalized cases of H1N1, and three deaths, according to the Georgia Department of Community Health.

But not all persons with flu-like illnesses need medical treatment, according to health officials. The majority of pandemic H1N1 flu cases are mild to moderate, with most patients recovering at home as they would with regular seasonal flu, said Decatur County Health Department County Nurse Manager Sherry Hutchins.

“Pandemic H1N1 flu is more contagious than regular seasonal flu, and it has a high attack rate in children and teens. The symptoms are fever, cough or sore throat, headache and fatigue. Many patients, especially young ones, are also experiencing nausea and vomiting,” Hutchins said.

“We are telling students and staff at schools who come down with flu symptoms to go to a room separate from others until they can go home.”

They should also wear surgical masks if possible so that droplets from coughs and sneezes carrying the virus won’t infect others, she said. People taking care of someone with flu-like illness should also wear protective gear.

“It is extremely important to stay home if you are sick until 24 hours after your fever is gone without using fever-reducing medicine,” Hutchins said.

Further, people at high risk for flu complications who are in close contact with someone with flu-like symptoms—or if they become ill with symptoms of flu—should speak to their health care provider as soon as possible, she said.

“Early treatment with antiviral medicine is very important for people at high risk because it may prevent complications,” said Grant. “People at high risk include those who are pregnant, have asthma or diabetes, have immune systems that don’t work well or have chronic illnesses like kidney disease, heart disease or cancer.”

For the latest on H1N1, visit the Southwest Georgia Public Health District’s Web site at http://rtn.darton.edu/phirn/ or the CDC’s Web site at http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/.