Back to School with Swine Flu? A Q&A with Gina Solomon


While we’ve been enjoying summer in the Northern Hemisphere, flu season has been raging in the Southern, and in that time “swine flu” (or the H1N1 flu strain) has become the dominant flu strain, spreading four times more quickly than the seasonal one. In Australia this winter, eight out of every ten people with the flu had the new flu strain. President Obama has even taken the step of recommending that Americans get vaccinated for H1N1 flu when the vaccine becomes available in mid-October. NRDC senior scientist Gina Solomon answers questions about the pandemic and whom it might affect.


Q. To start, is this flu more or less severe than the seasonal flu?
So far, H1N1 has taken less of a toll than seasonal flu, with fewer deaths and hospitalizations following its spread. And, happily, it hasn’t yet shown a tendency to mutate when it comes in contact with other strains of flu, reducing scientists' concerns that it might turn into a very lethal “superbug” like the strain that caused the global pandemic in 1917. That said, people have died from this flu, and the end of the epidemic is nowhere in sight.


Q. Given that this is a different kind of flu, who are the most vulnerable?
It may be less severe than seasonal flu so far, but it can still be deadly, especially to those with underlying conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls particular attention to those with asthma, diabetes, suppressed immune systems, heart disease, kidney disease, neurocognitive and neuromuscular disorders and pregnant women, noting that the flu can increase the risk of complications from these conditions.
For example, among patients with heart disease, fevers can cause fatal strain on the heart, and inflammation from the flu may make their symptoms worse.


Q. Should pregnant women take even more precautions than they normally would?
Although it is unknown if H1N1 will cause more serious problems for pregnant women or developing fetuses, the CDC recommends that pregnant women living with anyone who has the flu contact their health care provider to determine if they should get treatment to reduce the risk of infection.


Q. What about children going back to school?
Unlike seasonal flu, H1N1 has resulted in the deaths of more older children than children under the age of 5, according to the CDC. Most of the children who died suffered from underlying conditions, but some developed staph or strep bacterial infections that came on top of the flu. One reasonable precaution for school-age children is to take them out of school at the first sign of illness; the CDC has even begun a “Keep 'em home!” campaign. Children can remain infectious for more than a week.


Q. What are the warning signs that a child is sick enough to require emergency care?
Although this is flu isn’t as bad as the seasonal variety, CDC notes that parents should look out for these emergency warning signs that require urgent medical attention:

  • Fast breathing or trouble breathing
  • Dusky blue or gray skin color
  • Not drinking enough fluids
  • Severe or persistent vomiting
  • Not waking up or not interacting
  • Being so irritable that the child does not want to be held
  • Flulike symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough

Q. What treatments are available?
The CDC recommends the use of oseltamivir (trade name Tamiflu) or zanamivir (trade name Relenza) to treat or prevent infection. The World Health Organization has recommended oseltamivir for heart patients, HIV patients and pregnant women who may have caught H1N1. Early treatment is suggested because antiviral drugs are most effective during the early stages of infection. However, patients need to check with their doctor to determine if antivirals will interfere with any other medications they are taking.


Q. Who should get vaccinated?
Although President Obama has suggested that everyone get vaccinated, it is particularly important that those in vulnerable groups, as well as health care providers and caregivers for children six months and under, be vaccinated as soon as the H1N1 vaccine becomes available.


Q. What should I do to help myself and my children avoid catching the flu?
See the list of health tips in “Back-to-School Time: How to Avoid the H1N1 Flu.”


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