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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 29, 2009

Listen to reason over rumors

Ilustration by Forest Byrd.

Swine flu is here.

This week, the president has declared H1N1 flu a national emergency.

The Centers for Disease Control, which regularly updates its website tracking the flu, reports for the week ending Oct. 17, “Flu activity is now widespread in 46 states. Nationwide, visits to doctors for influenza-like-illness are increasing steeply and are now higher than what is seen at the peak of many regular flu seasons. In addition, flu-related hospitalizations and deaths continue to go up nation-wide and are above what is expected for this time of year.”

We’ve all seen the stories about the tents that have gone up in hospital parking lots in Texas and Tennessee to screen people thought to have swine flu.

Here at our news office in Altamont, we’ve been fielding calls from residents worried about the flu, particularly about rumors that absentee rates are high in Guilderland schools.

So it was reassuring this week to hear the calm voice of the school superintendent telling us, “We’re trying to help people relax. There is no cause for panic.”

Superintendent John McGuire said that the district had only “a handful” of confirmed H1N1 cases. Most doctors aren’t recommending testing, he said; it’s costly and treatment doesn’t differ with the diagnosis

Guilderland is keeping careful track of absences, said McGuire, describing the pattern as “erratic.”

We pressed him for numbers and he obliged with the data from this Monday.

At the high school, which has 1,844 students, typically 120 to 150 students are absent on any given day, said McGuire. On Monday, 115 were absent, and 17 of them had flu-like symptoms. No spike there.

The district is calling each absent person to find out why, McGuire said.

McGuire also pointed out that absentee rates may be higher than usual because school nurses are sending children home when they have flu-like symptoms, and the school has been advising parents to keep their sick children home rather than sending them to school where they could spread the virus. The same goes for staff.

At Farnsworth Middle School on Monday, 219 of the 1,239 students were absent; nearly half of them — 104 — had flu-like symptoms.

The data from Guilderland’s five elementary schools is equally varied. Nearly a third of the Altamont students were absent on Monday compared to less than 7 percent at Lynnwood. Ninety-five of Altamont’s 293 students were out, 67 of them with flu-like symptoms.

At Guilderland Elementary, 125 of the 538 students were absent, with 71 reporting flu-like symptoms. At Lynnwood, just 28 out of 435 students were absent with 17 having flu-like symptoms. At Westmere, 70 of 445 students were absent, 22 with flu-like symptoms. The sudden spike to 70 had decreased by Tuesday, McGuire said.

Finally, at Pine Bush Elementary School on Monday, 67 of the 480 students were out and nearly all of them — 61 — reported having flu-like symptoms.

“We’re monitoring daily,” said McGuire; the district then reports the information to the Albany County Department of Health. “There are pockets of infection that get passed along,” said the superintendent. “We want people to know everything we’re doing is consistent with the best guidelines available.”

McGuire used the term ILI — we’ve noticed educators are prone to use acronyms — for influenza-like illness, and said that term is being used by local, state, and federal health agencies to cover all kinds of flu. The district is urging those with symptoms — a fever of more than 100 degrees, a cough, a sore throat, a runny nose, muscle pain, fatigue, or vomiting and diarrhea — to stay home, whether or not they have been diagnosed.

McGuire also cautioned against believing rumors that the schools would close because of so many ILIs.

Asked what would prompt a decision to close school, McGuire replied that last week Columbia High School had one-third of its students absent and was advised by the health department to stay open. He said districts have to balance the risk of flu against the disruption dismissals would cause.

McGuire also went over the best practices outlined by the Centers for Disease Control. People should frequently wash their hands with warm water and soap; they should sneeze into their elbows; and, if they are sick, they should stay home until they’ve been without a fever and medication for 24 hours.

Also, McGuire noted that Guilderland has been advised that routine cleaning procedures and products are best.

Guilderland has done what schools should do — educate. The district website — www.guilderlandschools.org — carries a message from McGuire as well as information from local, state, and federal sources. The website, created and maintained by Amy Zurlo, also has a section answering frequently asked questions, which McGuire said is updated every time a new question is raised. This website can educate not just those with kids in school but the entire community.

Another useful website is www.cdc.gov/H1N1FLU/ maintained by the Centers for Disease Control, which explains that the H1N1 virus was first detected in people in the United States in April. In June, the World Health Organization signaled that a pandemic was underway. The CDC explains that the new virus has two genes from flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia and bird and human genes — what scientists call a “quadruple reassortant” virus.

The CDC site gives such practical information as how to handle linens from those sick with flu — tumble dry on a hot setting — and allays fears about eating pork, which can’t spread the disease. The CDC also cautions against “swine flu parties” and recommends vaccinations instead.

Production problems have delayed the federal government’s inoculation campaign. It’s imperative that high-risk patients and health-care workers receive the vaccination first. McGuire said the county’s health department had asked about using Guilderland as a vaccination site, probably in November, although nothing definite has been set up. The district is urging parents to consult with their family’s doctor about getting their children vaccinated.

About 70 percent of the people who have been hospitalized with the H1N1 virus are considered to be at high-risk from serious seasonal flu-related complications, including pregnancy, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and kidney disease.

Young children and people over age 65, if they get sick, are at high risk of serious complications from H1N1 just as they are from seasonal flu. Interestingly, though, those over 65 are the least likely to be infected with swine flu; CDC laboratory studies have shown that no children and very few adults younger than 60 have existing antibodies to the H1N1 virus while about one-third of adults over 60 may have antibodies.

It’s important — if, as the superintendent says, we are not going to panic — to put the new strain of flu in perspective. So far, swine flu has hospitalized at least 20,000 Americans and killed over 1,000. But, according to the Centers for Disease Control, each year in the United States, on average 36,000 people die from flu-related complications, and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu-related causes. Of those hospitalized, 20,000 are children younger than 5. Over 90 percent of deaths and about 60 percent of the patients hospitalized are over 65.

So, yes, the swine flu is here. We’ll continue to keep our readers informed. If we, as a community, listen to reason over rumors and favor facts over fabrications, we’ll be able to cope.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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