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Pandemic flu threat increases concerns
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Influenza becomes an issue in schools every winter, but the increasing threat of a pandemic flu demands more efforts to minimize the spread of germs.
Jane Clary, health specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said a pandemic influenza will be far worse than the seasonal-flu outbreaks that schools and communities experience each year. A pandemic is a disease outbreak that spans the world.
“A pandemic flu is much more contagious because most people will not have any immunity to the virus strain,” Clary said. “Because of the rapid, global spread of the virus, health services and supplies would be overwhelmed. There would likely be social and economic disruptions, including school and daycare closings.”
Clary stressed that health officials are preparing for “when,” not “if,” a pandemic occurs. Each year that passes without a pandemic should provide more time for institutions to prepare for the inevitable.
“Pandemics typically occur about every 10 to 50 years. About 1 million people died worldwide in the last flu pandemic in 1968, so we are definitely due for another one,” Clary said. “The worst pandemic occurred in 1918 when 40 million people died from the flu and related infections. That was at a time when antibiotics had not been invented to reduce the threat of secondary infections.”
According to the World Health Organization's Web site, influenza epidemics cause between 250,000 and 500,000 deaths every year around the world.
Art Sharpe, director of emergency planning and response with the Mississippi Department of Health, said preparedness and education are the department's primary messages.
“We are not in the middle of a pandemic, but we are in the pre-pandemic stage. The most important thing we can do is educate school officials about the virus and how to protect themselves, their students and their families,” Sharpe said. “People need to be aware of how viruses spread and should work to reduce the spread of any communicable illness.”
Before flu season arrives, teachers should start preparing students by helping them understand the importance of effective hand-washing and covering their noses and mouths when they cough or sneeze. Schools should allow more breaks for hand-washing, increase efforts to disinfect surfaces and check restrooms regularly to make sure soap and paper towels are available.
During a pandemic, Sharpe said school closings may occur, but those would be a last resort. Before taking that step, districts would probably discontinue sporting events and other large gatherings.
“Anyone who is sick should be encouraged to stay home,” Sharpe said. “Unfortunately, a person could be contagious before any symptoms appear.”
Schools will need plans for staying in touch with homebound staff and students when an outbreak occurs.