Friday, August 25, 2006

What if your child's school closed because of pandemic flu?

It's everyone's favorite time of year - time for kids to go back to school! As summer creeps to a close, families are preparing their children for the beginning of a new school year. But what if an influenza pandemic or other infectious disease outbreak closed our schools?

While we've heard from the federal government that officials are "not ruling out" the option of closing schools for a period of time if a flu pandemic occurs, there are no real details about what this would mean, and there are far more questions than answers for parents and communities.

What would you do if your child was unable to attend school or daycare? Where would kids go if such services suddenly closed and no one knew when they would reopen? Many of us depend on schools or daycare to care for our children on a daily basis, but we probably have not truly thought about the impact that pandemic influenza or an infectious disease outbreak would have on our families.

By preparing now, we can have plans in place when a flu pandemic or other emergency occurs. Here are some questions to ask yourself: Where will my children go if their school or daycare closes and I have to work? Does my work place grant paid leave time that will allow me to miss work? How would a flu pandemic or infectious disease outbreak affect my children's diet and their access to regular, healthy foods?

Beyond your own family, there are also issues for kids in your larger community. Many low-income children rely on school breakfast and lunch programs for their daily meals. How will these children eat if schools and daycare are closed? Are there services such as food pantries or shelters that will be prepared to feed them? How will those families know where to go? Every community should have a preparedness plan in place that will allow kids to eat healthily during an emergency, whether it is an outbreak of pandemic influenza, infectious disease or another disaster.

All of these questions may leave you feeling overwhelmed and anxious. But by thinking ahead now and deciding what your family and community can do to prepare, we'll all be ready if our school doors are closed.

Photo courtesy University of Toronto in Mississauga.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

For pandemic flu prevention, the best advice may be "rub-a-dub-dub."

With all the talk of a possible flu pandemic coming our way, it is good to know that the simplest of acts can help keep you safe.

And anyone can do it. You do not need health insurance or a prescription (or the sometimes dreaded referral note from your doctor). You do not need seven years at a prestigious medical school or a letter from the school nurse. It is as easy for a 50-year-old to do as it is for a 10-year-old, and best of all, it is free. In fact, it is really quite universal and can help fight more than just the flu.
Here is how you do it: Find a sink, pick up some soap, wash your hands. Seems too simple to be true, right? But as it turns out, Mom was right: Washing your hands is good for your health. Viruses can survive on your hands for hours and washing your hands regularly is a proven way to decrease your chances of getting sick - even if a deadly pandemic flu hits.

You are probably thinking "Please! Of course, I wash my hands!" Well, not to burst your (soapy) bubble, but many of us are guilty of skipping out at the sink. According to an August 2005 survey sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology, 91 percent of adults say they always wash their hands after using a public bathroom, but in reality, only 83 percent were observed doing so. Even grosser, only 32 percent of those surveyed say they always wash their hands after coughing or sneezing, which means it may be time to replace the commonly heard "Gesundheit" with "Wash your hands!"

To illustrate just how big a small thing like washing your hands can be, check this out: In 2005, health workers in a poor community in Karachi, Pakistan, educated residents about washing their hands and gave out free soap. The results were quite impressive. Soap and handwashing education decreased impetigo, a contagious skin infection, by 34 percent, diarrhea by 53 percent and pneumonia by 50 percent. A researcher who studied the Pakistan experiment put it best, noting that "the time has come to shout from the roof tops that hand-hygiene promotion should be a worldwide priority."

So, even though washing your hands is the simplest of tasks, here is a few tips from our nation's top health officials: use warm water, wash with soap for at least 20 seconds (imagine singing the "Happy Birthday" song twice), and if possible use your paper towel to turn off the faucet. If you are not near soap and water, an alcohol-based gel will do.

And if not getting sick is not enough to make you wash your hands, just think how proud your Mom would be.

Photo by Julie Deshaies, courtesy iStockphoto.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Michigan mute swans test positive for bird flu

As reported in The Seattle Times, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior announced Aug. 14 that two wild mute swans in Michigan may have been infected with H5N1 bird flu. Over the next two weeks, tests will be conducted to confirm if they were in fact carrying H5N1, and if so, how severe it was. However, tests have confirmed that the cases are NOT the same H5N1 virus that has caused severe illness and death in poultry and humans around the world, primarily in Asia. Initial testing suggests this is a weaker form of the H5N1 virus, what experts call "low pathogenic." Scientists are not sure yet whether the swans were infected with one H5N1 virus or with two separate bird flu viruses - one containing the H5 protein, the other N1.

The good news is that the U.S. system for tracking and testing birds for bird flu appears to be working. The two swans were tested on Aug. 8 in Monroe County, Mich., on the coast of Lake Erie. Another piece of positive news is that Americans can keep eating chicken and other poultry. As mute swans are not migratory birds, there is no evidence linking these swans to any poultry on commercial farms.

We are not out of the woods, though. Just because this appears to be a weaker form of the H5N1 virus doesn't mean it can't mutate into something much more serious. And, in reality, this is just a preview of what is yet to come, as experts predict that we are rather likely to see the more serious and deadly form of H5N1 in the United States before the end of the year.

Friday, August 11, 2006

What does H5N1 mean?

With the alphabet soup of acronyms that are being talked about in reference to the flu (H5N1, CDC, WHO) it can be hard to understand exactly what is going on.

One of the most important acronyms you may have heard is H5N1, which is the name of the bird flu strain that is causing so much concern around the world right now. H5N1 has already caused a flu pandemic in birds and infected about 230 people.

So why is it called H5N1? Every time a new flu virus is identified, it is named for two proteins, hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, that are on the surface of the virus. Hence the H and the N abbreviation.

The numbers that are included in the virus name signal a genetic change in the virus. Some combinations of H and N cause serious illness and death, while others only cause mild symptoms. Flu viruses that begin with H5 or H7 are highly likely to make birds and people sick.

And as for those other acronyms you may hear? CDC stands for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is the principal federal health agency that works to protect the health and safety of Americans. WHO is the World Health Organization, the health arm of the United Nations. Both organizations are serving as watchdogs for pandemic flu and sharing information as the threat develops.

Photo: Colorized transmission electron micrograph of avian influenza H5N1 viruses (seen in gold) grown in MDCK cells (seen in green). From the CDC, courtesy of Cynthia Goldsmith, Jacqueline Katz, and Sherif R. Zaki.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

APHA Releases List of Questions and Answers on Pandemic Flu for the Public

There is now a one-stop shop for people who need their basic questions answered on pandemic flu. The American Public Health Association has posted answers to frequently asked questions on pandemic flu on its influenza Web site. We hope it helps you understand seasonal, bird and pandemic flu a bit better. However, as the list does not answer every question on this complicated topic, keep your questions and comments coming!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Indonesia Reports Additional H5N1 Human Cases

According to press reports, Indonesian officials today announced that several people from a village in northern Sumatra are being treated for avian flu-like symptoms. The patients include at least three children. Family members have been admitted to a hospital in Medan. Doctors suspect the cases could be new clusters of the H5N1 virus.

The new cases are from the same area of Indonesia where seven members of another family became sick from the H5N1 virus in May and died. A connection has yet to be established between the cases that occured in May and new cases.

According to the World Health Organization, Indonesia has reported 41 human deaths from the H5N1 strain.