Experts: Flu to hit harder this fall

Published 9:20 pm Wednesday, July 22, 2009

This year’s flu season is gearing up to be a big one.

This week, Virginia Department of Health Commissioner Karen Remley told the Virginia State Parent Teachers Association that parents of school-age children should prepare now for the possibility of increased flu activity when students return to school this fall.

“We are continuing to see higher reports of influenza-like illness throughout the state than we normally would see for this time of the year,” Remley told members of the VPTA. “The highest percentage of those reports is among children.”

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Amal Patel, epidemiologist at the Western Tidewater Health District, said this season will be tougher because there are essentially two viruses to fight this year, instead of just one.

“In this season, we’re going to see the regular, seasonal influenza, which is the strain that comes back every winter,” Patel said. “But we’re also going to see the H1N1 strain (swine flu) as well. There are still some cases out there, which means we’re going to have a regular flu season, plus the H1N1 flu going around. So we’re anticipating a high level of influenza cases because of that.”

In her address to the Virginia Parents Teachers Association, Remley said, “a community-wide response is the key” for protection against serious disease.

Schools play a vital role in creating that “community-wide” response, VPTA’s Health and Safety Chairperson Michelle Prescott said in a release from the Virginia Department of Health.

“For example, children or teachers may have symptoms for as little as one day but be contagious for a longer period of time,” Prescott said. “Parents may be tempted to send children back to school when they are feeling better but are still contagious. The same is true for teachers who may want to return to school sooner than they should.”

Suffolk Public Schools Public Information Office Bethanne Bradshaw said the school system follows all of the Virginia Department of Health’s recommendations when it comes to flu season preparations.

Patel agreed, adding that the school district is prepared and keeps up with developing health safety practices throughout the year. For example, all of the schools have posters in the halls and bathrooms reminding staff and students to cover their mouths when coughing and to wash their hands

“It’s the same as always,” Patel said. “What they already have in place is good. This is what they do on a year-round basis.”

To further achieve that community-wide response to the flu, Patel said people need to be aware of basic preventative measures as the flu season approaches.

“The main recommendation that we have for the regular flu season is what we’re going to stress again, because there is nothing new you can do,” Patel said. “It’s just the basic staples: Covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze, stay home from work or school if you have influenza symptoms, limit how close you are to a person that is symptomatic.”

Patel added that the Health Department strongly recommends everyone getting their regular, seasonal flu shots, which should be available in October. Additionally, Patel said a swine flu vaccine is in the works, but a timetable has not been released for when the vaccine will be available.

“It will be out this season, we just don’t know when” Patel said. “But after the clinical trials are over and it’s approved, that will also be recommended.”