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UPDATE | Schools stay cautious as swine flu hits

South Whidbey School District officials are taking any outbreaks of the flu seriously by sending kids home as a precaution when they look sick.

But is the bug the standard seasonal flu or the new strain called H1N1, commonly called swine flu?

Hard to say, because no one is testing each patient who gets the flu to see if it’s H1N1, say Island County health authorities.

Even so, it’s definitely here.

The county’s communicable disease coordinator, Katie Hicks, said that there is clear evidence that swine flu is on Whidbey Island, based on results from the tests that have been conducted.

Only those who have been hospitalized or deceased are tested at the higher level needed to determine if the H1N1 virus is present.

“Of those tested, roughly 95 percent are found to have swine flu,” she said.

“When an individual is first tested and the results come back positive, that means they have the flu but doesn’t confirm what kind it is,” she explained. “The flu is the flu; symptoms and treatment are the same.”

School district officials say there’s no need to panic.

“We’ve been sending kids home as a precaution when they have symptoms of the flu, but there is certainly not an epidemic,” said elementary school nurse Jill Workman.

The H1N1 virus exhibits similar symptoms and the treatment is the same as for seasonal flu.

Though swine flu is considered less severe than many typical seasonal illnesses, schools are erring on the side of caution.

“The goal of the school health department isn’t to prevent virus transmission, because we know that’s going to happen,” Workman said. “We want to lessen the transmission of any virus.”

Workman said that school nurses are sending kids home if they have a temperature above 100 degrees, sore throat and headache.

“We’re playing it safe, emphasizing good hygiene and washing down surfaces,” she added.

Workman said that wherever possible, use soap and water instead of a hand sanitizer because, “in most cases it’s more effective containing the spread of germs.” If a problem persists, she recommended parents call, not visit, their doctor for medical advice.

“Calling first will go a long way to prevent spreading the virus,” she said. “If symptoms persist or get more severe, the doctor will recommend treatment.”

According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine last month, the H1N1 virus was identified in April of this year and was a reassortment of four known strains of influenza A virus. One was a strain found in humans, one in birds, and two were unique to pigs, or swine — hence the name.

South Whidbey Elementary School assistant principal Scott Mauk noted that farmers across the country object to the appellation “swine” flu rather than H1N1.

“It affects the public perception of their farm products, and has had a substantial and unfair economic impact on the producers,” Mauk said. “This flu has virtually nothing to do with eating pork products.”

He added that the school district and the county are quite prepared if an epidemic should break out.

“We have been working together with county health nurses and (Island County Health Officer) Roger Case,” Mauk said. “It appears that H1N1 is a relatively mild illness, but the contagious nature of it is a little different than we are used to with seasonal flu. Precautions like hand washing, avoiding those already infected and staying home are important.”

The county expects to have the H1N1 vaccine available by mid-October for those most at risk for complications from the virus, including pregnant women and children. They will be inoculated first.

“We intend that the vaccine will be available to anyone by late November,” Hicks said. “People can contact their health care provider or call the county at 360-679-7351 for details.”

South End folks are concerned over the outbreak. On Tuesday, the county set up an inoculation station in Freeland at Trinity Lutheran Church, but may have underestimated the demand for shots.

“First, we ran out of syringes, then the vaccine itself,” Hicks said. “We certainly want to thank people for their patience and understanding.”

For more info, visit www.flu.gov or call the Island County health department at 360-679-7351.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

SWINE FLU: What to look for

Whether a virus a person contracts is eventually determined to be swine (H1N1) flu or regular seasonal flu, there are certain warning signs to watch for.

In children, keep track of kids with trouble breathing, fever with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, bluish skin color, not drinking enough fluids, being irritable or exhibiting flu-like symptoms that seem to improve but then return with fever or a worse cough.

In adults, difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen,sudden dizziness, confusion and severe or persistent vomiting.

As always, washing hands thoroughly with soap and water and avoiding those already infected is the best way to prevent getting, or spreading, a flu virus.

SO YOU KNOW

Island County health officials recommend the H1N1 vaccine initially for certain high-priority groups because they are more likely to have serious complications if they develop swine flu. These groups include pregnant women, caregivers and household contacts with children younger than 6 months, emergency medical services personnel, everyone between the ages of 6 months and 24 years and people ages 25 to 64 with existing health problems.

Adults over age 64 are less likely to become ill with the new flu strain. Vaccination against seasonal flu is still highly recommended, though.

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