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Local school officials taking swine flu in stride

May 12, 2009
REGION — With public anxiety over the H1N1 flu virus (the new strain of swine flu) beginning to subside as students returned from April vacation last week, local school officials tried to keep things in perspective in their approach to the issue.

Believed to have originated in the Mexican state of Veracruz, the new H1N1 virus (a combination of four separate strains, one endemic to humans, one endemic to birds, and two that are endemic to swine) spread throughout much of Mexico during the month of April, infecting a total of 473 people there (as of May 2). Cases of the virus among travelers returning from Mexico have also been confirmed in 18 other countries (including the United States), with suspected cases popping up in 42 more.

As of Saturday, May 2, the virus had caused 19 deaths worldwide, all but two of them in Mexico.

To date, 16 confirmed cases of the swine flu virus have been found in New Hampshire: two Concord Hospital employees; an Upper Valley resident; two students from Kearsarge High School (one 18, the other 19); a 15-year-old New Hampton student; a Derry resident; a Rochester resident; a 10-year-old from Bedford; a Hudson resident; an 11-year-old resident of Keene; and five residents of the greater Nashua area (a three-year-old, two 13-year-olds, an adult, and the latest confirmed case, a 12-year-old who attends school out of state).

During an informational meeting organized by district officials at the Alton Central School on May 6, Samantha Brann of the Lakes Region Partnership for Public Health (LRPH) advised area residents not to be surprised if the number of confirmed cases continued to rise in New Hampshire over the next several weeks.

Offering some statistical perspective on the 642 confirmed cases and two deaths reported in the United States so far, Brann pointed out that an average of 36,000 U.S. citizens die of influenza every year (according to the federal Center for Disease Control).

Alton Superintendent Kathy Holt said she and Principal Bonnie Jean Kuras had chosen to open the elementary school's doors and welcome students back from vacation on May 4 as planned, despite discussion at the state level about possible mandatory school closures.

District officials have posted a message on the school's Web site asking parents to contact the school nurse if their child has recently returned from one of the affected geographic areas.

Parents are also asked to monitor children returning from affected areas for any symptoms of Influenza for a period of seven days following their return. If symptoms occur, parents are encouraged to contact the family's health care provider for an evaluation, as well as the school nurse.

"If you or your child is sick, stay home from work or school until you are better," the message reads, adding that all students and staff are being reminded to "wash hands well and often," and to cover coughs and sneezes with either a tissue or an elbow, rather than their hands.

"Students who are not ill can safely come to school, even students with a history of travel to affected areas, as long as they don't have symptoms," the message states.

"We've done, I think, a pretty good job" of being proactive and maintaining a safe environment for students, Holt said, commending the school's kitchen and custodial staff for their efforts.

Officials at Barnstead Elementary School (BES) reported on May 6 that a student suffering from "flu-like symptoms" had been briefly quarantined in the nurse's office and sent home.

BES Principal Tim Rice said Monday, however, that the student did not test positive for the new H1N1 strain, and had simply come down with a run-of-the-mill case of the flu.

In a message posted on the BES Web site, Rice and school nurse Kathy Grillo have advised parents and students to take appropriate precautions with regard to hand-washing (recommending that students wash their hands often, particularly before snacks and meals, for 20 or more seconds at a time) and also suggested that students not share water bottles, utensils, cups, or food.

The message also states that school custodians have been asked to increase the precautionary cleaning of classrooms and wiping down of desks, table tops, door handles, and any other surfaces on which students regularly place their hands.

"Don't panic!" the message reads. "This is a good time to remind your child to use good hygiene and healthy habits. Thank you in advance for all your efforts to keep yourselves and your children healthy."

Prospect Mountain High School Principal James Fitzpatrick reported during the JMA board's May 5 meeting (see the story on page A5) that no cases had been reported at the high school so far, and that the school nurse had been asked, as a precautionary measure, to keep tabs on students and staff who traveled abroad during April vacation.

Regional planning in place

Detailing LRPH's efforts to prepare for the possibility of a widespread outbreak during her presentation at Alton Central, Brann said the organization, in conjunction with state agencies, has been working for the past two and a half years on a regional emergency management plan.

As part of the plan, she said, LRPH has activated a Multi-Agency Coordinating Entity (MACE), an information and resource-sharing entity aimed at providing a "quick, efficient response" in an emergency situation.

Using the December ice storm as an example, Brann explained that if Alton had put in a request for cots for its emergency shelter, the MACE (had it been in effect at that point) could have requested the cots from another local community, such as Meredith, that wasn't hit as hard, rather than depending on the state for emergency aid.

Another lesson learned during the ice storm was the ineffectiveness of locating the region's triage unit and other emergency facilities in Laconia, she said, adding that LRPH has since been looking into "what we could use in the local communities."

"The plan works," she said. "We have the capacity to respond."

Holt suggested that the swine flu outbreak could serve as a reminder that "our plans at home ought to be in place" in the event of a serious, incapacitating illness — most importantly, having adequate medication and supplies on-hand ahead of time.

Assuring parents once again that the swine flu was "not anything to panic about," Brann advised them not to put too much stock in the World Health Organization's pandemic alert system, which she said takes only the rate of transmission from person to person into account, and not the severity of individual cases.

Symptoms to watch for

The symptoms associated with the new H1N1 strain are similar to those common to the standard seasonal flu virus (fever, chills, sore throat, coughing, headaches and body aches), although nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea have been reported in some cases.

The state Department of Health and Human Services has posted information about the new strain on its Web site (http://www.dhhs.state.nh.us/DHHS SITE/default.htm), and has also established a hotline at 1-888-330-6764.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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