This year, we have heard a lot about the flu, particularly the risks that avian or "bird" flu may present to humans. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently released its pandemic flu plan, which would be called into action should widespread infection, such as a global pandemic, occur. More information about pandemic flu can be found on the federal government's pandemic flu site. Local educational agencies are encouraged to work with their public health officials to ensure their crisis plans adequately address issues related to pandemic flu, including prevention / mitigation of, planning for, response to, and recovery from a pandemic flu situation.
Although we cannot know for certain whether there will be a pandemic flu this year or in the near future, pandemic flu planning is vital to communities and our country. Whether or not there is a pandemic, the risk of seasonal flu is still a serious concern. "Seasonal flu" refers to the sickness caused by influenza that is seen at various levels in the population each year. The U.S. Department of Education knows that school administrators, teachers, staff, and parents are concerned about the flu, particularly its effects on children. Schools can be creative about keeping their communities healthy, including by posting information about hand washing in restrooms, providing flu messages in daily announcements, and being vigilant about cleaning and disinfecting classroom materials.
We know that school administrators, teachers, staff, and parents have lots of questions about the flu, such as the following:
What is the current situation with flu vaccine?
The CDC does not expect a vaccine shortage similar to last year, although there are some may be a few, isolated regional delays in delivery of the vaccine. More information about these delays and the overall supply can be found on CDC's website.
Who should receive the flu vaccine?
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that after October 24, 2005, flu shots be made available for everyone. Individuals in the following "high-priority" groups should receive their flu shots:
- All children aged 6–23 months;
- Adults aged 65 years and older;
- Persons aged 2–64 years with underlying chronic medical conditions;
- All women who will be pregnant during the influenza season;
- Residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities;
- Children aged 6 months–18 years on chronic aspirin therapy;
- Health-care workers involved in direct patient care; and
- Out-of-home caregivers and household contacts of children aged 6 months.
Where can I get more information about the flu, the vaccination shortage, and prevention?
Our colleagues at the CDC have developed a flu website where you can access:
- Information about preventing the spread of flu in schools;
- "Be a Germ Stopper" and "Cover Your Cough" posters formatted for printing;
- "It's a Snap" toolkit, which includes activities that school administrators, teachers; and students and others can do to help stop the spread of germs in schools.
CDC also has a list of questions and answers on their website, at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/. Here are some highlights:
How do I know when someone has the flu?
Tests are available that can determine if you have the flu as long as you are tested within the first 2 or 3 days after your symptoms begin. In addition, a doctor's exam may be needed to determine whether a person has another infection that is a complication of the flu.
How can I tell if someone has the flu or a common cold?
Because colds and flu share many symptoms, it can be difficult (or even impossible) to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. Special tests that usually must be done within the first few days of illness can be carried out, when needed to tell if a person has the flu.
For more information, see Questions & Answers: Cold Versus Flu
How long is a person with flu virus contagious?
The period when an infected person is contagious depends on the age of the person. Adults may be contagious from one day prior to becoming sick and for three to seven days after they first develop symptoms. Some children may be contagious for longer than a week.
Can antiviral drugs cure the flu?
Not exactly. When started within the first two days of illness, they can reduce the duration of the disease but cannot cure it outright. Four different antiviral drugs (amantadine, rimantadine, zanamivir, and oseltamivir) have been approved for treating the flu. All four drugs can reduce the duration of flu by about one day if taken within 2 days of when symptoms begin.
A doctor must prescribe all of these drugs. These drugs are effective against flu viruses, but they are not effective against other viruses or bacteria that can cause symptoms similar to influenza. These drugs are not effective for treating bacterial infections that can occur as complications of influenza.
At what age should a child be vaccinated?
The flu vaccine is not recommended for children younger than 6 months of age. CDC and the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommend that all children ages 6-23 months should receive the flu vaccine, since they are at high risk for complications from the flu.
CDC has also provided some additional important information and resources about how to stay healthy this flu season on their website, at http://www.cdc.gov/flu/.
How can I prevent the flu besides being vaccinated?
The CDC recommends the following to help prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses like flu:
Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
Stay home from work or school and any school-related activities when you are sick. This will help you recover from your illness and also keep you from spreading your illness to others.
Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
Wash your hands often.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
Flu Resources for Schools
To find contact information for your state or local health department, go to http://www.cdc.gov/other.htm.
For "Key Facts About the Flu," a fact sheet including information about flu symptoms, how flu spreads, and how to prevent flu, go to http://www.cdc.gov/flu/keyfacts.htm.
For more information about both the injectable flu vaccine and the new, intranasal Flu Mist, go to http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/fluvaccine.htm.
For more information about treating flu and flu symptoms, including information about why children or teenagers with flu-like symptoms should NOT take aspirin, go to http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/sick.htm.