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Schools gear up for busy flu season


Hear Mamie Coker, health services coordinator for Hall County schools, detail what parents need to know about H1N1 flu to keep kids healthy and in school.

As educators learn the H1N1 flu is more likely to afflict children and younger adults, schools and colleges are ramping up their preventative measures and educating students, parents and teachers on their role in keeping the community healthy.

If a child gets the flu this year, it’s likely the swine flu, said Hall County schools Health Services Coordinator Mamie Coker. And The World Health Organization predicts that within two years, nearly one-third of the world’s population will have caught it.

While no flu cases have been reported in Hall County or Gainesville schools, other area schools are seeing the beginnings of a flu season that could be more severe than usual. What remains to be seen is whether this flu season will cause the usual 36,000 flu-related deaths or more.

School officials have reported more than two dozen cases of flu in Jackson County schools, three at Brenau University, 13 at North Georgia College & State University and at least one at Gainesville State College.

Jackson County schools Superintendent Shannon Adams said there have been at least 24 flu cases in eight of the system’s 14 schools.

He said the school system, like all area schools and colleges, is following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocol that mandates sick students stay at home until they have no symptoms of the flu for at least 24 hours without pain relievers or fever reducers.

"We’ve had students back in school in three or four days feeling chipper," Adams said of some of the sick students.

In addition, schools are going the extra mile to frequently sanitize facilities, encourage students to wash their hands often and cough into their elbows to not spread germs with their hands.

Gainesville State College Communications Director Sloan Jones said the college recently implemented additional cleaning procedures in which desks, door handles and heavily used areas of the schools are being wiped down with sanitizer every morning before class.

Adams said the affected Jackson County children experienced fever, runny nose and sore throat and were taken to a room in the school away from other students until they could be sent home.

"Keep in mind (the H1N1 flu) usually is a mild illness," Coker said. "... And it usually only lasts three to five days."

Scott Briell, senior vice president for enrollment and student services at Brenau University, said the three students who came down with the flu lived on campus and were kept away from other students last Thursday. He said they all returned to class Monday feeling better.

Briell said the university has taken a proactive approach to keeping a flu outbreak at bay. Posters encouraging hand washing are everywhere on campus, he said.

"We’ve got sanitizer dispensers all over campus right now," Briell said. "We’ve gone after it pretty hard. We want to make sure people are thinking about it. ... There’s not a whole lot you can do to stop the flu, but you can try to prevent it from spreading."

Students are the flu’s prime spreaders.

For parents, the big fear is how many children will die.

In the U.S., regular flu kills 80 to 100 children every winter, and the CDC has reports of about three dozen child deaths from swine flu.

Even if the risk of death is no higher than in a normal year, the sheer volume of ill youngsters means "a greater-than-expected number of deaths in children is likely," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. "As a society, that’s something that’s much harder for us."

The world is used to seeing regular flu that kills mostly older people. But the real shock of swine flu is that infections are 20 times more common in the 5- to 24-year-old age group than in people older than 65. The older generation appears to have some resistance, probably because of exposure decades ago to viruses similar to the new one.

Worldwide, swine flu is killing mostly people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, ages when influenza usually is shrugged off as a nuisance.

Coker said she encourages children and those who are most susceptible to get vaccinated when vaccines are delivered in mid-October.

Importantly, careful genetic tracking shows no sign yet that the virus is mutating into a harsher strain.

Only this week do U.S. researchers start blood tests to answer a critical question: How many doses of swine flu vaccine does it take to protect? The answer will determine whether many people need to line up for two flu shots — one against swine flu and one against the regular flu — or three.

The hopeful news: Even with no vaccine, winter is ending in the Southern Hemisphere without as much havoc as doctors had feared, a heavy season that started early but not an overwhelming one. The strain that doctors call the 2009 H1N1 flu isn’t any deadlier than typical winter flu so far. Most people recover without treatment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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