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By Jeb Bing

Get those flu shots before it gets you

Uploaded: Oct 16, 2009

Early anxiety over the swine flu has waned a bit primarily because the large numbers of flu-like illnesses being reported are just that: typical influnza that we deal with every year. It's early for a flu outbreak, which usually comes in the late fall-early winter timeframe.

This year's outbreak is catching many before we've gotten our annual flu shots although the lines at Raley's, drug stores and other locations that are providing the shots show that we're lifting our shirtsleeves quickly to gain protection from the disease. Flu is nothing to slough off. A typical flu outbreak kills about 36,000 people each year in the U.S., with most victims already suffering from other health complications. Now, with the weather getting cooler and people spending more time indoors, germs flourish, infections spread more easily and the worst may be yet to come.

That's especially true in our schools, where Pleasanton has seen an increase in the number of students who are absent due to reported flu-like symptoms. So far this week, Alisal, Mohr, and Valley View elementary schools have a higher number of absences due to reported flu-like symptoms. Families with children in individual elementary classrooms that find five or more students are home with the flu are being notified by their teacher. At middle and high schools, the principal is notifying families if there are more than 20 students with these symptoms at a grade level.

No one really knows if any of these cases are the more serious H1N1 virus since most suspected cases of the swine flu have been mild or moderate, hardly indistinguishable from the typical flu, which, as we all know, can be bad enough. That's why everyone should have a regular flu shot as soon as possible and then consider the H1N1 vaccination when it becomes available.

Health experts tell us that viruses are unpredictable and adaptable, and a mild strain can mutate into something that packs a nasty punch. Anyone in the family who travels should be especially vigilant since some countries -- India, for one -- are shutting down colleges, schools, movie theaters and other places where people congregate to help contain the H1N1 and other flu outbreaks. Last June, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, a super-epidemic, although again, it's unclear if it was a typical flu or H1N1 epidemic. Adding to the uncertainty was a report by a presidential advisory group in August of a "plausible scenario" in which a swine flu epidemic could cause up to 90,000 deaths, three times the number felled in a typical flu season. Fortunately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention countered that the toll would most likely not approach that number.

Clearly, as we are already seeing in our public schools, this could be a worse-than-average flu season, which is why so many of us are rushing to have the shots. It's the second time around for the flu concerns. In the initial outbreaks last spring, several schools closed in neighboring counties, although not in Alameda, and there were two-to-three suspected H1N1 cases in Pleasanton, although those turned out to be typical flu illnesses. In New York, where the outbreak was the biggest, 800,000 New Yorkers, or about 10 percent of the city's population, developed symptoms attributed to the swine flu virus.

Here, students were barely at their desks for the new school year before teachers, school nurses and others started lecturing them on the necessity to wash their hands often, use sanitizers that schools are now providing and cover their mouths when coughing.

At a recent school board meeting, flu was center-stage in the evening's discussion with school and health representatives advising parents to talk to their doctor ahead of time if their child has any chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, or weakened immunity that puts them at higher risk for flu-related complications. When calling the school attendance line to report a flu-related absence, parents are also asked to be specific in describing the symptoms, such as fever, sore throat or cough. Students who are ill should stay at home and will not be penalized for being sick. Teachers have been asked to allow students to make up any missed classroom work.

Superintendent John Casey said there are no plans to close schools even if several students are at home battling H1N1 or a typical influnza. This is good because, as the Brooking Institution reported last month, closing schools and day care centers because of swine flu could cost between $10 billion and $47 billion in lost revenue, salaries and unscheduled time off for parents who also must stay home to care for children who are out of school.