The novel strain of flu virus that’s been stoking fear of a pandemic appears to be acting a lot like regular flu in the United States, except that it tends to strike young people instead of the elderly. But in light of new scientific information, government health officials revised their guidance on school closures this week, saying their initial recommendation that schools and daycare facilities with a lab-confirmed case of swine flu consider closing for as long as 14 days isn’t effective. Still, experts urged Americans to stay vigilant and continue with frequent handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes and staying home from work or school if they have symptoms.
Instead of promoting the idea of school closures, the CDC wants to focus on early identification of affected people so that “students, faculty and staff with symptoms of influenza [are] out of schools and childcare facilities during their period of illness and recuperation, when they are potentially infectious to others.”
“When influenza becomes common in a community, it is unlikely that actions such as closing schools or daycare facilities are effective when it comes to slowing or stopping the spread of influenza viruses,” according to a CDC statement. “Instead, such measures bring significant cost – such as interrupting student learning – without a significant public-health benefit. In addition, we have learned that the disease currently being caused by this novel flu virus appears to be similar with that typically caused by seasonal influenza. Although many people may get sick, the available data do not indicate we are facing an unusually severe influenza virus.”
As of Wednesday, there were 1,487 probable and confirmed swine flu or H1N1 cases in 44 states, Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a briefing. The median age of patients is 16, with a range of three months to 81 years. Two people have died from the virus in the U.S. and 35 have been hospitalized. The median age of hospitalized patients is 15 but ranges from eight months to 53 years old.
Besser said he expects to see more illness result from the new strain of flu and urged people not to become complacent just because drastic measures such as lengthy school closures are no longer being employed.
“We are continuing to see virus spread in the United States and around the globe,” he said. “The majority of the confirmed cases in this country are in younger people. And it’s important that people have respect for this virus, because it does cause severe disease, hospitalization and death.”
People seem to be taking the CDC’s hand hygiene recommendation to heart. Fifty-nine percent of more than 1,000 adults surveyed by the Harvard School of Public Health last week said they’re washing their hands or using hand sanitizers more frequently since the outbreak began. One in four say they’re avoiding places where large groups of people gather, such as sporting events, malls and public transit. Only 4% of parents said they kept their kids home from school or day care. More than half of Americans are concerned they or someone in their immediate family may come down with swine flu in the next 12 months, the poll found.
Many questions remain unanswered. Among them: Whether the virus will have a mild first wave in spring, only to be followed by a second wave in the fall that proves far deadlier after the bug has had a chance to mutate and adapt. Such a scenario occurred during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed half a million Americans and at least 21 million people worldwide.
“As the [seasonal] flu season starts in the southern hemisphere, what takes place there is going to be incredibly important,” Besser said. “How does the virus compete with other viruses that are circulating in the community, does it change, does it mutate? If so, in what way?”